No tampering found in Michigan presidential vote on Election Day

Was Michigan’s presidential vote rigged, hacked, or otherwise tampered with?

The 2016 election, more than any in recent memory, invoked cries of “fraud” or “rigged” by partisans from across the political spectrum. Some of these issues will be discussed for years, including the primary process, the rules for who is allowed to vote, how we verify voter eligibility, and who is behind the release of hacked emails.

While these are legitimate and important issues, the very gravest threats to our democracy have to do with what happens on Election Day. The recount petition submitted to the State of Michigan earlier this month by Jill Stein goes directly to the heart of this threat, alleging “mistakes, fraud, or tampering” in the process of counting votes.

To investigate these claims, we performed an analysis of county-level vote totals in Michigan. Since our state runs elections in each county separately, any tampering with the ballots or the vote counts would have to be done separately for each targeted county. Our forensic analysis of this voting data, summarized in a letter sent to the Secretary of State on December 16th, did not uncover any evidence of tampering.

What can we tell by looking at county vote totals? We can tell two things. First, there were no “outliers” that were very different from other counties in a way that couldn’t be easily explained. Looking at the distribution you see three “outlier” counties with unusually low Republican vote shares (and correspondingly high Democratic vote shares). On closer examination the outliers are Wayne, Washtenaw, and Ingham Counties, which are reliably dominated by Democrats in presidential elections — no surprise there.

With no outliers that surprise us, we can all but rule out the most ham-fisted type of tampering typically reserved for banana republics: manipulating one or two counties to drastically alter their vote share. In fact, most counties had a similar partisan outcome in 2016 as they did in the 2012 presidential election, though Mr. Trump consistently outperformed Mr. Romney.

Furthermore, none of the county vote shares shifted by an unusual amount toward the winner — some counties voted about the same way they did last time, but most counties shifted a bit toward the Republican candidate.

Second, looking at the distribution of county vote shares — the whole range of outcomes of all counties looked at together — reveals no anomalies, surprises, or suspicious outcomes. The distribution shifted toward the Republicans, and the shape of the 2016 county vote share distribution had similar features to that of the 2012 election. (This is confirmed by statistical tests we describe in our letter.) Put in layman’s terms, we looked for evidence that a subset of counties had unusual voting behavior that “broke the pattern” set by the rest of the counties, and did not find it.

Taken together, our analysis finds no evidence that there was a county or set of counties that look like their vote totals were altered or otherwise tampered with. Without additional, specific evidence of tampering, looks like we just had a clean, close election where the voters surprised the pundits and pollsters.

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.

About The Author

Alexander Rosaen

Alexander Rosaen is director of public policy and economic analysis at Anderson Economic Group LLC in East Lansing

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Tue, 12/20/2016 - 12:02pm

I didn't bother reading beyond something about ignoring Detroit and Lansing because they were heavily Democratic.It seems that about a third of precincts in Detroit has way many more ballots in the boxes than voters. How does our author explain away apparent box stuffing?

Joe Palm
Tue, 12/20/2016 - 12:48pm

"Most of those overages were by small amounts \'97 on average about 3 votes \'97 with the largest being 12 votes in a single precinct. Those small numbers, which add up to 782 total spread out across more than 200 precincts, tend to point to human or machine malfunction as the culprit, rather than widespread fraud.In 158 precincts, the number of ballots tabulated by the optical-scanning voting machines was inexplicably less than the number of people who signed in to vote. At least 362 ballots were not counted in those precincts, even though the voters had been listed in poll books."

Tue, 12/27/2016 - 12:37pm

A more interesting take on the Detroit irregularities;If the city votes 97% Democratic and 37% of the precincts are uncountable, I calculate that any enterprising Republican or even Libertarian can challenge the balloting in Wayne County and cause hundreds of thousands of Democratic votes to be invalidated. Michigan will become a reliably red state. The media have written this re-count off as a publicity stunt of Stein and ignored, or not been made aware of the huge effect of a block of votes being easily scrubbed from the final count.

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 12:39pm

As evidenced by the recount results and statements by Clerk Janice Winfrey, there is strong evidence that the inability to recount over half the precincts was the result of poll workers with a weak grasp of reading or using computers, and/or an inability to absorb training. Couple that with the demands on an elderly person to work 15 - 18 hour days with minimal break time, and you have a recipe for disaster. To its credit, one company did supply 150 younger volunteers for the process, but with nearly 700 precincts to staff, that number was far from what was required. I would recommend the following: Start earlier asking companies for volunteers; allow the splitting of shifts; if the cost of an election is a problem, allow fewer elections per year so that a more knowledgeable person could be hired; require a competency test for poll workers; and finally, and I do not know the rules on this, but do not restrict poll workers with residence requirements.

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 1:53pm

Maybe Michigan should have 3 weeks of early voting like Ohio then....oh wait, Republicans think 1 day of voting is too much for some demographics.

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 2:45pm

Voting should not be a partisan issue. But when a party that finds itself in the minority in our state in many districts wants to configure the outcome in its favor, there are two options. Redistrict, and/or, alter the mode of voting to make it harder for the opposition to vote. In a real and functioning democracy, voting should be encouraged so that all citizens can vote easily. What a revolutionary concept. So why not have a longer voting period. Why not having voting at easier sites, like malls, post offices, city halls? Why not have mail in ballots like so many other states. Or is democracy not really the point here.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 12/22/2016 - 1:24pm

Question for Mr. Rosaen: Exactly how can you conclude that there was no tampering whatsoever when something like 50% of Detroit's voting precincts could not be recounted due to "irregularities" such as the number of ballots in the box being nowhere near the numbers listed in the poll books?