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Guest commentary

Michigan’s election system does not count every vote

Alan Fox has helped run Michigan political campaigns for over 40 years. He is on the staff of Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting and has been a Democratic member of the Ingham County Board of Canvassers since 1993.

Alan Fox has helped run Michigan political campaigns for over 40 years. He is on the staff of Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting and has been a Democratic member of the Ingham County Board of Canvassers since 1993.

The partial recount of the 2016 presidential election in Michigan did not uncover any hacking or fraud. It uncovered the small human errors that accompany any large undertaking run by thousands of people who don’t get to practice very often. What it did reveal is something that everyone involved in Michigan elections has known for the past decade: The system we have does not count every vote cast.

According to data released Tuesday by the Michigan Bureau of Elections, the partial recount examined and retabulated nearly 2,100,000 ballots. The six candidates for president each gained votes. The net increase was 1,648 votes, or one of every 1,275 votes cast. All of the candidates lost votes in some precincts and gained in others so the gross change from the official total is far greater.

There is no evidence that ballots for any candidate were systematically uncounted or miscounted. Candidates gained additional votes roughly in proportion to their counted votes. But between human error and the shortcomings of the optical scan systems used in Michigan votes routinely go uncounted.

I won’t go into the sources of human error – they exist no matter what tabulation system is used. There are far fewer such errors now than there were when punch cards, lever machines or paper ballots were used.

The optical scan systems fall short for a variety of reasons. Some failures can be blamed on the age of the equipment; most scanners in the state have been in use for over a decade. The equipment failures, however, do not generally affect the scanners’ ability to count votes. They lead instead to misfeeds and jams that result in the widely reported count discrepancies that could render a precinct unrecountable under Michigan law.

The scanners, even when new, fall short because they cannot be programmed to spot every mark in the “target area” of a ballot and also to properly distinguish intentional markings from stray marks. When ballots are examined in a hand recount candidates generally gain votes because the human eye can spot and the human brain can interpret marks that would be ignored or misinterpreted by any scanning system.

In Ingham County’s presidential recount, the county Board of Canvassers was called upon to decide 21 ballots where the recounters’ determination had been contested by one of the observers.

Ingham County uses a connect-the-arrow form of the scanned ballot; other counties use a fill-the-bubble system. The legal standard is that for a vote to be counted there must be a mark of any sort in the area used to connect the arrow and the mark must be found to have been intentionally placed by the voter.

Nearly every one of the small number of ballots we examined had marks that had clearly been made intentionally, that did not connect the pieces of the arrow, but that did have portions of the marking in or very near the “target area.” In one case, the voter had circled the head of each arrow. Most of the circles went completely around the head, but the circle in the presidential vote was off-center and missed the target area by a pen-width. That is not a vote.

Several voters consistently colored over the head of each arrow in a scribble. If even a tiny portion of the scribble went beyond the arrow head and into the area between the parts of the arrow the vote was valid; if it did not we could not count it. The whole process involved use of magnifying glasses, pocket lights and straightedges. It could not possibly have been programmed.

These ballots, however, were less than 10 percent of the votes added to the candidates’ totals in Ingham County. In about 200 other cases the recount workers found and identified without controversy valid votes for president that must have been missed by the scanners. Put another way, about one out of every 700 votes cast for president in Ingham County was missed by our equipment but was easily identified and tabulated by human counters. That rate of failure by the equipment is unacceptable.

Every recount of optically scanned ballots in Michigan has found this pattern. Just this summer a recount in the Democratic primary for Redford Township Treasurer counted 32 more votes than the 4,981 originally tabulated. A recount in an Oakland County legislative district Republican primary added 42 votes to the 12,891 counted. In each case, both candidates gained votes.

Next year, local units of government will start purchasing new voting equipment. The intent is that new scanners will be in wide use for the 2018 elections. The new equipment is overdue. Whether it will solve the problem remains to be seen.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

9 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. duane

    This article does not directly address much of the talk about the election and its results, it focuses on the practical side of vote counting, that is refreshing and valuable to readers.

    This is a well written article [it flows in a way that makes it an easy read and allowed me to learn], identifies problems to be addressed, and leaves me with the impression that appropriate actions are being taken.

    I apologize to the author mentioning an indirect value, it tells us how the system works and how ‘hacking’ did not prevent voters from casting their vote, did not prevent the system verifing and tabulating the votes, did not prevent if there is questions about votes that people stepped in [following an established protocol] to ensure that votes weren’t systematically not counted even when it was an incomplete actions of the voter.

    Here is where I may make the writer uncomfortable, I see no reason that Michigan voting was ‘hacked’ by the Russians or anyone else. We as Michigan voters can have full confidence in the people and systems that makes the voting process [from the casting of votes through the counting of votes locally and up through the staff of the Secretary of States office] is fair and accurate.

    Thank you Mr. Fox and thank you to all that make our voting process work.

    1. Dave B

      The ‘hacking’ of the election as the media reports it in headlines, brings incorrect ideas to mind. One thinks of hacking as in manipulating the data and the actual vote count. I doubt there was any actual vote manipulation. The actual cases of hacking were things like hacking into Democratic emails and releasing true and false emails that may have swayed voters. (I’m not taking sides on which way votes were swayed.) However, there may have been quite a bit of false propaganda released that may have influenced voters.

  2. Kevin Grand

    “There is no evidence that ballots for any candidate were systematically uncounted or miscounted. “

    I’m sorry, Mr. Fox. But that is a leap of faith that Evel Knievel couldn’t make.

    When poll books go “missing” for days on end and a significant number of books don’t match the number of ballots cast at a precinct, the spin that I’m seeing and hearing to excuse this is not only inexcusable but it is getting a little difficult to stomach.

    1. John Hayden

      The operative word here, Kevin, is “systematically.” Fox is correct.

      1. Kevin Grand

        Mr. Hayden,

        Something like 50% of Detroit’s voting precincts could not be recounted due to “irregularities”.

        That sounds pretty systematic to me.

        1. Trevor Tutro-Anderson

          Do you chalk it up to malfeasance? I tend to chalk it up to something mentioned in the article, and something I saw from the recount in Wayne County: a lack of training. Keep in mind, I know its fashionable to pile on Detroit, but we saw a bunch of unrecountable precincts in some western suburbs as well.

          We, the people, are the problem. We do not take voting seriously. We don’t take the entire process seriously as a people, and we get to see something in much clearer focus that some folks like Mr. Fox see a little more frequently.

          1. Kevin Grand

            Then let me ask you this: If you had a precinct that shows around 300 people casting ballots and only about 50 ballots are to be found in the ballot box, what conclusion would you come to?

  3. Barb O'Kelly

    I feel like an elephant in the room is being ignored: the HUGE number of ballots that could not have been recounted even if the court’s decision had allowed it.

    I’m appalled that current state law specifies that, if the seal on a ballot box is not completely proper, the ballots for that entire precinct cannot be recounted. It may be that NONE of the votes from Meridian Township were eligible for recount. Perhaps 50% from Detroit?

    This law is completely contrary to the purpose of a recount. It would seem that, if a group of corrupt precinct election officials wanted to tamper with an election’s results, they could do so by stuffing a ballot box (after ‘stuffing’ the excess ballots through the counting machine), sealing it, and damaging the seal. I understand that multiple workers in the precinct might have to be involved, but it doesn’t seem totally outlandish to me.

    Perhaps a recount of such ballot boxes and precincts would need to be ‘provisional’, similar to provisional ballots cast by questionable voters, but to totally exempt them from checking seems to me to protect the guilty. The problem is serious. The law needs to be changed.

    1. Allison Wilcox

      This is my concern as well, that the requirements for recounting include the number of ballots matching the number of voter names recorded. There are many reasons they might not match, not all purposeful, and a recount could sort that out. The law definitely needs to be changed.

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