Detroit election workers at TCF processed more than 160,000 absentee ballots for the November presidential election. (Shutterstock photo)

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers is expected to certify Detroit’s election results Tuesday despite lawsuits to stop certification and unsubstantiated claims of election fraud by President Trump who called Detroit one of ”the most corrupt political places in the country” at a Nov. 5 news conference. 

Some have called for a statewide recount of the vote as neither President Trump nor U.S. Senate candidate John James has conceded to their opponents. While a statewide recount would be a costly endeavor that would be highly unlikely to change Joe Biden’s 146,000 vote lead, the Trump campaign or any other candidate doesn’t have much time to petition for a recount.

“A recount has to be requested within 48 hours of certification,” said Aghogho Edevbie, Michigan state director for All Voting is Local. “On Tuesday, the County Board of Canvassers will certify and then the state is scheduled to certify on Nov. 23.”

A recount petition has to be filed with the clerk of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers.


However, the process of how ballots are recounted in Michigan is particularly unique. A provision of state law asserts that the Board of Canvassers cannot recount ballots of a precinct if the number of ballots cast is different than the number recorded in the poll book for that precinct or if the seal is recorded improperly. These provisions may factor into the ongoing challenge of holding a recountable election in a large city like Detroit.

“We have many laws in the state of Michigan, election laws, that kind of get in our way, that hinder the process,” Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey told BridgeDetroit in an October interview.

Winfrey explained last month that Michigan is one of the handful of states that will not allow a recount of a canister of ballots because of “sloppy clerical work” or a mistake that a poll worker may have made.

“For example, if a poll worker is given a seal certificate with the number 1234 and 1234 is written in the poll book but that poll worker takes that seal after working 20 hours and writes … 1243 instead — that canister is deemed un-recountable because of clerical error,”  Winfrey said.

According to the manual for the Boards of County Canvassers, three factors prevent a precinct recount: an improper seal, a number on the seal that doesn’t match the number in the poll book, and a number of ballots in the container that doesn’t match the recorded label.

After the presidential election in 2016, 392 precincts in Detroit were ineligible for recount because poll book and ballot box numbers didn’t match, according to the Secretary of State’s executive summary of audits. Although the Secretary of State’s Bureau of Elections found no evidence of voter fraud that year, the bureau pointed to human error in Detroit’s count and recommended improving election worker training, among other administrative proposals.

In the August primary, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers also found that the number of absentee ballots counted did not sync with the poll books for 72 percent of Detroit precincts, which triggered the state’s oversight for November’s presidential election. Edevbie said there is reasoning behind the requirement.

“The law is in place as a security measure,” he said. “If you were to have a lack of balance, you don’t know whether that lack of balance is because of incompetence, mistake or fraud. So you just stick with the number that is there.”

However, Michigan law “doesn’t exactly make sense,” according to Democratic political consultant, Mark Grebner, who said the state’s election law wasn’t designed all at once but rather accumulated as issues arose.

“It’s kind of like evolution: it was put together one piece at a time in response to a particular problem, often a crisis,” Grebner explained. “This particular provision is bizarre because if the precinct is well controlled, well run, you can recount it. But if it’s a complete mess and doesn’t make any sense then it’s exempt from recount and you can’t touch it.” 

Because election law is local, there is no federal streamlined method for recounting in an election and processes can vastly differ from state to state. Grebner believes most states had similar provisions in the past for precincts that don’t balance but changed their laws to remove that requirement.  He believes the law isn’t sensible, especially for large cities like Detroit, which had 503 voting precincts this election. 

“A sensible state would’ve adopted an amendment to fix this. What we should do is recodify the election law— sit down and write a system for holding elections from beginning to end.”

When asked if managing elections with these laws intact disenfranchises the state’s largest, majority Black city, Ryan Jarvi at the Secretary of State’s office said they couldn’t comment “as it is too closely related to pending litigation.”

A lack of balanced numbers are often the cause of simple human error but can mean that entire precincts are not recounted.

“What people don’t understand about elections is that … it’s very human and humans make mistakes,” Winfrey said. “So there is no such thing as a perfect election, much like a perfect person.” 

Jonathan Kinloch, vice chairman of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, told BridgeDetroit that one of their primary roles is to “balance the precincts” and seek explanations if there is an imbalance.

Without a detailed explanation in the poll book for why a discrepancy exists, a precinct cannot be included in the event of a recount. Winfrey said that being unable to recount a precinct’s ballots damages public trust in the results. 

“Recount is the only way that you’re going to show real integrity of the process,” Winfrey said. “If you don’t trust the process, then we should be able to recount every canister every time regardless of what a poll worker may or may not have done.”

Grebner said he believes Michigan’s election law causes a paradoxical problem because “the worse the election was run, the more you’re stuck with the results.”

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

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