Putting Detroit’s vote count errors in conte...

Putting Detroit’s vote count errors in context

Yes, 70% of Detroit’s absent voter counting boards were out of balance -- but that amounts to a small number of actual counting errors, and there’s no sign of fraud.

detroit vote count errors unbalanced counting boards

Michigan’s election results are certified — but at hearings in front of state House and Senate committees this week, Republicans continued to raise concerns over Detroit’s election results that have already been repeatedly debunked. So we’re taking a closer look at some of the numbers that put the city front and center.

One of the seeds of misinformation about the Michigan election stemmed from an unprecedented Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting held last month, where the two Republican board members nearly refused to certify Detroit’s election results, citing the 70% of unbalanced absent voter counting boards in the city. But despite that large figure and the scrutiny it brought to Detroit’s handling of the election, the actual number of counting errors was small — and not a reason to question the city’s results, experts say. 

In a Board of State Canvassers meeting last week to certify the state’s election results, member Norm Shinkle, a Republican, raised several questions about Detroit’s handling of elections. “For anyone to say that this election in November went smoothly — I suppose you could compare it to August, which was a total mess. You might say there’s improvements. But ‘smoothly’ is not accurate at all,” he said to former Michigan Director of Elections Christopher Thomas.

Thomas, who worked as an advisor to Detroit’s City Clerk during the general election, said he was “impressed” with Detroit’s improvement since this year’s primary election. “There is no jurisdiction anywhere near the size and complexity of Detroit [in Michigan],” he pointed out. Officials “made great strides in terms of accountability with balloting, check-in and tabulation compared to the primary,” he said, thanks in part to the state board’s push for state oversight of Detroit’s general election.  

Despite election officials’ praise for Detroit’s improved elections operations and insistence that the election was secure, the city has been the target of false claims of voter fraud by President Donald Trump’s campaign and other GOP groups. Some of those alleging fraud have seized on Wayne County’s canvass, a typically rote part of the certification process that went off the rails last month when Wayne County canvassers Monica Palmer and William Hartmann, both Republicans, voted “no” on certifying Wayne County’s election results. They changed their vote and certified the results after hours of criticism from Wayne voters, but Palmer maintained that she was “concerned” about a large number of precincts not balancing in Wayne County. The next day both Palmer and Hartmann signed affidavits expressing their desire to rescind their “yes” votes, which had no practical effect. So what exactly is all the fuss about?

72%: The percentage of Detroit’s 503 precincts that had out-of-balance absentee ballot records in the August primary.

70%: The percentage of Detroit’s 134 absent voter counting boards that were out of balance in the November general election. (Counting boards are small groupings of precincts.)

450: The highest estimate we’ve heard for the number of actual ballot errors among all absentee voter counting boards and election-day precincts. 

257,619: The vote tally for the city of Detroit.

0.2%: An estimate of the portion of out-of-balance votes in Detroit.

145,000: Roughly the number of votes by which Biden led Trump in Michigan.

71.9%: The percentage of all 637 precincts in Detroit that were in balance in the November general election. This includes election-day precincts and absent voter counting boards.

53.6%: The percentage of all 1,006 precincts that were in balance in Detroit’s August primary. (Both election-day precincts and absentee voting precincts.) 

41.8%: The percentage of all 662 precincts that were in balance in Detroit’s 2016 general election. (Both election-day precincts and absentee voting precincts.) 

A precinct is considered “unbalanced” when the number of ballots cast does not equal the number of voters recorded in that precinct’s poll book. This doesn’t point to voter fraud, election experts stress. Imbalanced poll books are “everywhere,” Tammy Patrick, senior advisor to the elections program at the Democracy Fund told the Detroit Free Press. “It happens all over the country in large jurisdictions and small jurisdictions.”

But Palmer argued that November’s election results showed Detroit hadn’t made sufficient progress reducing errors since the August primary.

In the primary, 72% of the city’s 503 precincts had out-of-balance counts in their absentee ballot records. In the November general election, 70% of the city’s 134 absent voter counting boards, tabulated at TCF Center, were out of balance. Absent voter counting boards are “an accumulation of several precincts with the same ballot form, so all the candidates, offices and proposals are the same,” Thomas explained. Precincts with the same ballot form are filtered into the same counting board.

In the August primary, precinct-level races made ballots unique from precinct to precinct and absent voter counting boards weren’t used. 

And while 70% may sound like a lot, when you break down the numbers, the concern over a large number of errors is less convincing.

Based on the way that out-of-balance counting boards are reported, we know for sure that there were at least 294 votes that were out of balance in the general election. The exact number is unclear, though estimates put the total under 500. Mayor Mike Duggan said that “the total number of out-of-balance counts was 357,” and the Detroit Free Press estimated the number at “around 400.” The Michigan Democratic Party said that “at most 450 votes” were out of balance in the city. Detroit’s Department of Elections did not return a request for comment, and the Secretary of State’s Office could not provide an exact number. 

If you take the highest estimate of 450 votes, that’s 450 out of 257,619 votes cast. That’s less than 0.2% of votes. So 70% of absentee ballot counting boards were out of balance, but that amounts to potential errors on fewer than 0.2% of all the ballots cast. (And President-elect Joe Biden won Detroit with more than 228,000 votes.) In Detroit, more than half of out-of-balance election-day precincts were off by just one vote. In comparison, one single out-of-balance precinct in Livonia had 27 out-of-balance votes

Those 27 votes are no sign of voter fraud in Livonia, either. Out-of-balance precincts are to be expected. They were also reported in Highland Park, Northville, Trenton, Hamtramck and Ecorse, among other Wayne County cities. Detroit has the most out-of-balance precincts, but it also has the most precincts of any city in Wayne County (or the state at large). 

Out-of-balance precincts are typically the result of good-faith mistakes, election experts say. At an absent voter counting board, for example, a scanning machine could skip over a person’s name on an envelope and end up recording their vote but not entering their name into a voter list, leaving an official record of one more ballot than there are voters. At a polling place, a poll worker might forget to record when someone makes a mistake on their ballot and must exchange it for a new one. 

“I don’t believe there was fraud, I see no evidence of fraud,” Democratic Board of State Canvassers member Julie Matuzak said last week. “But there’s lots of human errors.”

Detroit’s handling of the 2016 election was criticized by officials, too: current Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist called it a “complete catastrophe” when he unsuccessfully ran against Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey in 2017. But the 2016 results didn’t lead to the false claims of widespread voter fraud or the contentious canvass meetings we’ve seen this year. 

In addition to a statewide audit on election results, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said she will conduct a performance audit on Wayne County. The performance audit will review the election process and is routine, she said. It is not “designed to address nor performed in response to false or mythical allegations of ‘irregularities’ that have no basis in fact.” 

Unbalanced precincts do pose one major problem: they mean that the precinct in question cannot be recounted. That’s because Michigan has one of the strictest recount policies in the nation. Under a law that elections expert Doug Jones described to Bridge in 2018 as “poison,” any out-of-balance precinct is automatically ineligible for a recount. If a recount is requested, the precinct’s original count is used.

Thomas advocated for election recount reform after the 2016 presidential election, and in 2018, 17 Democratic members of the House sponsored a bill that would have amended the law. It was introduced by Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), formerly of the House. “The idea of a recount — in any situation — is to ensure greater accuracy of the election results. You want to make sure that in the event of a recount that every single precinct does get recounted,” she told the Detroit News after this year’s general election. In the case of precincts with inaccurate counts, she posed, “why wouldn’t we want to make sure that we get the correct number?”

The recount law has drawn criticism from up and down the political spectrum. Its critics include all four members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. “The legislature needs to change these archaic laws, but every year, they drag their feet and nothing ever changes,” Hartmann said.

As Duggan pointed out after the canvassers’ meeting, though, a recount of Wayne County votes would achieve very little this year. “If the presidential election in Michigan was decided by 100 votes, it would have made sense in the canvass to audit those 357,” he said. “It might have changed the outcome. But Michigan was decided by 145,000 votes.”

Maggie McMillin is an Elections SOS fellow with Detour Detroit.