A single missing ballot was enough to scuttle the recount of Rochester Hills precinct 11.
The computerized poll book listed the names of 848 voters who cast ballots there, but the ballot box contained just 847 ballots. So where is the other ballot? The poll workers’ notes offered no explanation.
“It didn’t match on the canvass and it doesn’t match now,” said Joe Rozell, Oakland County’s director of elections. “This precinct is not recountable.”
Under Michigan law, a precinct can’t be recounted if the poll book and ballot box numbers don’t match, unless there is a valid explanation. In such cases, the results from the original election night tally stand.
But it isn’t just an issue in Oakland, the same problem is appearing in precincts in several counties.
In Wayne County, about one-third of precincts showed discrepancies during the November canvass, said Krista Haroutunian, chair of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. Those discrepancies could make those precincts — 610, including 392 in Detroit — ineligible for recount, though a final decision has yet to be made.
The problems raise questions about the overall accuracy of Michigan’s vote, said Keenan Pontoni, state coordinator for Recount Michigan, the effort of Green Party candidate Jill Stein to recount Michigan’s 4.8 million ballots, which produced a 10,704 vote victory for Republican Donald Trump in the presidential race.
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“We’re seeing this issue in several instances of precincts being deemed not-recountable because the numbers don’t match,” Pontoni said. “We think that any instance where ballots are not being counted compromises the process.”
Mark Grebner, a longtime political consultant who’s studied Michigan elections for decades, said Michigan differs from other states when it comes to recount procedures.
“Michigan law is stupid on this point,” Grebner said. “It makes no sense, and it should be fixed. Other states don’t do this.”
Grebner said that the mismatch between the number of ballots in a box and the number in the poll book are most likely the sign of human error on the part of poll workers, who are supposed to reconcile the numbers before closing the precinct for the night. But that often happens after midnight, and poll workers have been on the job since dawn.
“A lot of these people are older folks, and they’ve been working 15 hours,” Grebner said.
Sometimes the numbers don’t match, but poll workers explain the discrepancy.
For example, if a ballot is challenged because the voter didn’t have identification, the ballot is placed in a challenge envelope and counted separately. Poll workers are supposed to note that in their end-of-night report. But if they leave it out, the number of ballots in the box will not equal the number of ballots in the poll book.
Other errors also can kill a precinct recount: On election night, when poll workers finish their work, the ballots are locked in a ballot box with a seal that includes a serial number. That number is then logged in the poll book.
But Grebner said it’s easy for someone to transpose a number or a letter when they write it down.
Haroutunian, chair of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, confirmed numbers initially reported by the Detroit News showing vote totals in 610 of 1,680 precincts in Wayne County that could not be reconciled in a canvass report in November. Most of those — 392 — were in Detroit.
Haroutunian cautioned that those numbers may shift during the recount, and she noted that they represent different processes.
The canvass reviews the process — comparing the poll book to the machine printout, for instance — but does not involve reviewing the ballots themselves, as happens in a recount, which will actually redo the tally.
She said there are lots of reasons a vote total might not reconcile during the canvass. If someone chooses not to complete their vote, for instance, it would have an impact.
“Sometimes someone could have a spoiled ballot, but then they don’t revote. They get frustrated and then they leave. That would not be a matchup,” Haroutunian said. “Some people walk into the polling place and don’t vote. I’m not saying it happens in a large scale, but it can happen.”
Haroutunian said she had heard there were problems with some voting machines, but she had no specific knowledge about the scope. If there’s a machine breakdown or power outage, some voters may not want to place their ballot in the auxiliary box, which is set up for those occasions, she said. That would also affect the canvass report.
Macomb County officials said they won’t know how many precincts may pose a problem until they actually start counting votes on Tuesday morning.
“But it is not unusual in a recount of this size to have some precincts that aren’t countable,” said Todd Schmitz, spokesman for Macomb County Clerk Carmella Sabaugh.
He cited a case of the Armada Township Clerk’s race in August in which 17 votes separated the winner and loser. The second place finisher — Monica Job — asked for a recount, but the race could not be recounted because of a broken seal on the absentee ballot box.
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