Detroit’s ballot tracker was meant to instill tr...

Detroit’s ballot tracker was meant to instill trust in voting by mail. For some voters, it did the opposite

Everything we know -- and don't -- about BallotTrax.

Detroit ballot tracker

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Amber Hunt dropped off her absentee ballot at the Northwest Activities Center, one of Detroit’s satellite voting centers, on July 27. She was a bit nervous about voting absentee in the Aug. 4 primary, but was psyched to learn that she could track the journey of her ballot on her phone using BallotTrax, a third-party app offered by the city of Detroit to help voters “trust that your vote counts!” according to the city’s website.

The trouble was, Hunt never received confirmation that her vote was actually accepted for counting — the final step on the journey.

“It still says the ballot was received — step three, and the last step is “ballot accepted” for counting,” Hunt told Detour. “I don’t know what that means. Does it just mean they got it, but doesn’t mean it was counted?”

On the state website, her ballot was also shown as “received,” but that’s the final step in their tracker.

Hunt’s BallotTrax results are stuck on step three.

Hunt is one of several voters who voiced concerns in the Detour Facebook group about BallotTrax, with others saying they got an “invalid” message, the system couldn’t find their voter information and their ballot isn’t shown as received, despite info to the contrary on the state site. 

Software was only one of many problems that plagued the Aug. 4 primary, including unbalanced ballot counts in 72% of the city’s absentee voting precincts, last-minute polling venue changes and a lack of trained poll workers, sparking widespread concerns about voting in November.

In light of these challenges, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced Wednesday a pledge to work with Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey’s office to administer the November election, including training more poll workers and installing more places to drop ballots.

These changes will hopefully help make the election run more smoothly in the city. But we’re still wondering about the ballot tracking software — the one designed to instill trust in the system. During a year with so much riding on people’s ability to use absentee ballot systems to vote, and so much controversy and partisanship surrounding the U.S. Postal service, such platforms are crucial for restoring trust. 

So, how do online ballot trackers work — or not?

Two companies offer these intelligent tracking platforms. The nonprofit Ballot Scout (launched in 2016) and for-profit BallotTrax (launched in 2009) combine USPS Intelligent Mail Barcode data with voter information from local clerks’ offices to track ballots and report on their journeys to voters.

“It’s sort of similar to the way you would track an Amazon package, where you can see where the package currently is in a mail stream,” Jessenia Eliza, director of government initiatives at Democracy Works, the nonprofit that designed Ballot Scout, told Fast Company in May.

The systems are supposed to work like this: Your ballot is printed and scanned by the USPS as it leaves the post office, destined for your door. It then registers with the system each time it is scanned along its journey, from delivery to your home, to outbound from your home, to your clerk’s office. When all goes well, users get confirmation that their ballot has been received by their local clerk and accepted for counting. That last step requires the clerk to acknowledge acceptance of the ballot in the system.

Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer got stuck at step one. Winfrey told Kaffer her office never received the application, but a Benson spokesperson confirmed it had been placed in Winfrey’s print queue and then removed. Kaffer never figured out what happened to her absentee ballot.

BallotTrax and Winfrey’s office didn’t answer multiple inquires from Detour, and it’s unclear what caused BallotTrax to show voters incomplete information about their ballots.

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How the state tracks your ballot

The State of Michigan operates its own ballot tracking system at www.Michigan.gov/vote, where registered voters can check whether their absentee ballot was received by the local clerk, as well as information about polling location and a sample ballot.The information is based on data pulled from the state’s Qualified Voter File (QVF), a database that includes the name, address, driver license number, precinct number, digital signature and voting history for every registered voter.

When a clerk issues or receives an absentee vote application or ballot, they are supposed to record that information in the QVF, according to Tracy Wimmer, media relations director for Benson’s office. “So what a voter will see [on the state’s online ballot tracker] is the date the application or ballot was issued or received by the clerk,” Wimmer wrote to Detour in an email. “It does not track the ballot through the mail system.”

Wimmer also said the state tested a third-party platform that, like BallotTrax, does track ballots through the mail during the primary. The platform was tested in Sault Ste. Marie, Delta Township, and City of Ann Arbor. That platform, called Ballot Scout, draws data from postal scans of ballot envelopes. 

Wimmer said that the system worked “effectively,” in most cases. Benson’s office first confirmed to Detour that they will provide use of Ballot Scout at no cost to local jurisdictions who want to use it for the November election. The state will continue to offer the SOS ballot tracker to all Michigan voters.

“While we already provide information to voters on when their application or ballot is sent or received, Ballot Scout has the ability to allow voters to see where their ballots are in the mail stream, depending on the features the clerk decides to use,” Wimmer said. “However, we recommend clerks do not use Ballot Scout if mail is locally sorted because it may not be scanned.”

How election officials plan to fix the problems that plagued the Detroit primary

The problems in Detroit went beyond absentee voting. There were a number of last-minute location changes, leaving some unable to vote. Poll worker shortages and lack of training was another problem.  

Jesse Hicks, a Royal Oak resident, signed up to be a poll worker through the Secretary of State’s website and received no training, didn’t hear back until 7:59 a.m. on the morning of the primary, when he received a call asking him to head to Detroit. When he arrived at his polling location, located in a high school running seven precincts, he found Detroit city workers running the polls. 

“There were about two people that knew what we needed to do,” Hicks told Detour, describing confusion over the vote count.

Hicks said he’s not likely to volunteer to be a poll worker again, and that he’d rather work on getting people to the polls. “That might be a better way to serve democracy,” he said.

The secretary of state’s partnership with Winfrey and the city will include recruiting and training of at least 6,000 election workers, installing 30 drop boxes around the city for absentee ballots (there were only two for the primary), increasing the number of satellite voting centers in the city from seven to 21, and changing policies for using high-speed vote counting machines, which hopefully will reduce errors. The state will also install former Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Christopher Thomas as senior adviser.

The move comes after several weeks of concern expressed by county and state leaders over Winfrey’s handling of the primary. On Aug. 20, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers asked Benson to investigate the protocols and election worker training executed by Winfrey’s office after finding the mismatched ballot counts. Under state law, those precincts would not be eligible for a recount should one be required. On Aug 24, the Michigan Board of State Canvassers certified the state’s election results on the condition that the “secretary of state exercise supervisory control” over the city’s election this November. 

We still have questions about how Detroit will handle November

Other voters had a similar experience as Hunt. One Facebook group member, Julie Burtch, looking to confirm that her vote had been counted in the primary, waited over an hour on the phone to try to talk to someone at Winfrey’s office before giving up because she had to go to work. After two emails, she received word that her ballot had been received, but no response to her request for proof. “That’s the last I heard about my ballot,” she wrote.

Detroiter Darren Nichols, in a Detroit Free Press op-ed, called Detroit’s primary performance “an F by anybody’s standard.” The changes outlined by Benson’s office will hopefully raise that grade. Increasing the number of satellite voting centers and secure drop boxes for absentee ballots will hopefully shore up the absentee voting experience for many Detroters. Nichols added: “Detroit, you deserve better. And you need to demand it.”

Benson remains a proponent of absentee voting, having sent out 4.4 million postcards to registered voters across the state urging them to vote absentee in August. “We’re prepared, if not over-prepared,” she said recently. “I’m confident we’re doing everything humanly possible to ensure secure and safe elections in Michigan.”

But we still have questions about BallotTrax we’d like answered. Why did Hunt (and so many others) who dropped off their absentee ballots never get confirmation that they were received for counting? And how will the city use intelligent ballot tracking— which has so much potential to increase voter confidence — this November?

As for Hunt, she’s likely to forego absentee voting altogether.

“I probably will go in person in November, because I just don’t trust any of it,” she told Detour. “I would love to vote absentee, and I know other states do it really well. But without that kind of confirmation, it just makes me a little uneasy, especially with so much at stake this year.”

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a contributing editor for Detour Detroit. She is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit, a digital media startup that tells Detroit’s environmental stories while building a community of engaged readers who are informed and empowered to act personally and publicly. She is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes, edits and produces stories about the environment, place and identity. Her recent work has been published by Detour Detroit, Belt Magazine, HuffPost, Detroit Free Press, WDET, Crains Detroit Business, Business Insider, Curbed Detroit and Model D. Prior to her career in journalism, she worked in urban planning in the local government and nonprofit sectors. She has a Master of Science in Natural Resource Ecology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaignaczak