Botched elections. Missing ballots. Is this any way to run a democracy?

ballot box

Michigan’s failed presidential recount last year wasn’t an aberration. It’s part of a pattern that has some concerned about the integrity of elections.

The votes said one thing. Wayne County said another.

Last November, amid the controversy over the failed Michigan presidential recount, a quieter ballot battle was unfolding in Taylor, a suburb of Detroit.

On election night, Ronald Lee Miller seemed to prevail in his write-in campaign for school board, besting five other candidates. Two weeks later, though, the county declared another candidate the winner.

It was a mistake. And the county admitted it. Documents submitted in court show that within days officials realized they’d neglected to count dozens of votes in their rush to certify the election.

Come January, though, Miller watched another man, David Meyers, take the oath of office. Wayne County refused to alter the results. Its reasoning: Miller had failed to request a recount within six days, as is required by state law. The county interpreted the law to include four days its offices were closed due to the Thanksgiving holiday.


Ronald Lee Miller received the most votes to win a seat on the Taylor School Board last year. Wayne County officials mistakenly declared another candidate the winner and spent months in court arguing that Miller waited too long to challenge the results. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

“This is the perfect storm of incompetence and timing,” said Mark Brewer, Miller’s attorney and a former Michigan Democratic Party chairman.

Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett declined comment, but longtime observers say the episode is the latest in a series of sloppy elections across Michigan that test voters’ faith, particularly in Wayne County.

In the county’s largest city, Detroit, ballot irregularities have prevented full recounts in three consecutive mayoral elections. City Clerk Janice Winfrey faces a tough re-election campaign in the Aug. 8 nonpartisan primary next week because of a host of snafus from broken machines and missing ballots to last November’s national embarrassment, when more than half of Detroit’s 662 precincts were ineligible to be recounted because the number of ballots in voting machines didn’t match those in poll books.

voter forms

Canvassers use sheets to compare how many voters signed into precincts and how many votes machines counted. At left is a sample from Allen Park precincts in November that shows few discrepancies. At right is a sample from a Detroit that same election, where almost every precinct had a significant issue. CLICK TO ENLARGE (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

Ballot security problems aren’t confined to Wayne County. They also have prevented full recounts of a Flint City Council campaign in 2013 and a state House race in 2010 in Michigan’s Thumb. In that election, a Republican candidate won by 18 votes after a recount that was forced to exclude 10,000 other votes, raising profound concerns about the election’s legitimacy.

Ballot irregularities are so endemic that when Miller sued in January over the botched Taylor school board election, Wayne County attorneys had a revealing defense.

They argued in court that local clerks in the five communities included in the Taylor School District did such a woeful job preserving ballots that a recount was impossible.

Detroit, Lansing and 61 other municipalities are rolling out new voting machines in next week’s primary that could remedy some issues, such as paper jams that cause erroneous counts when voters try repeatedly to insert ballots.

By August 2018, all jurisdictions in Michigan will have the new machines, which are partially funded by $40 million from the state.

But some say the frequency of problems underscores the need for wholesale reform in Michigan, which grants local communities far more oversight of elections than almost any other state. Nationwide, larger jurisdictions such as counties typically conduct elections.

“Whoever the next governor is should put together a panel to take a look at our election process because there’s just too many issues,” said John Gleason, Genesee County’s clerk.

The problems coincide with President Trump’s assertions that millions of people across the U.S. illegally voted in last year’s election. Brewer and other elections experts dispute that claim, saying that most of the issues they are complaining of originate from honest mistakes and lack of worker training.

‘I wouldn’t wish this on anyone’

Miller eventually was declared the winner in Taylor.

It took eight months, a recount and a lawsuit that revealed deep dysfunction between the Wayne County Board of Canvassers and Garrett, the county clerk, who are supposed to work together to certify elections.

Miller was speaking to Bridge Magazine from his kitchen table last week when Wayne County Chief Circuit Judge Robert Colombo Jr. ruled that Meyers was “unlawfully holding (an) office” that belonged to Miller.

Miller looked at the order. He didn’t so much as smile.

“When I’m sitting in that seat and can do what’s best for the kids of Taylor, I’ll be content,” said Miller, 59, who retired from the school district as a transportation supervisor.

“I would never wish this on anyone. It’s affected me at home. I’ve lost friends. Doesn’t it matter any more about what’s right and wrong?”

Miller likely will be sworn in next week, Brewer said. The order from Colombo followed a three-day recount in June that showed Miller received 444 votes to 398 for Meyers.

The recount proceeded over objections from county attorneys, who argued that Miller waited until January to formally protest the election.

They also tried to prevent the recount over claims that ballots from multiple precincts were dumped into one bag, stored in insecure locations and stuffed in boxes with broken seals.

Westland City Clerk Richard LeBlanc said “clerks got thrown under the bus” by the county.

“(Miller) was the winner. But rather than fix their mistake, (the county) dug in,” LeBlanc said. “You can’t get any more bizarre.”

The judge ruled the school board recount could proceed in Taylor and parts of Dearborn Heights, Inkster and Brownstown Township that are part of the Taylor school district. But the judge disqualified Westland from the recount, ruling that clerks illegally stored ballots by placing them in a box with tape over them, rather than a seal.

LeBlanc, who became clerk in 2016, said he’ll fix the problems, but argued he was following established policies and the ballots were stored behind multiple locked doors.

The lawsuit revealed that canvassers failed to count name variations for both candidates. By the county’s initial reckoning, Miller didn’t even vote for himself. He was credited with zero votes in his home precinct because he and others wrote in “Ron Miller” rather than “Ronald Lee Miller.”

“Everyone knew it was wrong, but just excused it,” Miller said.

“I won the election. I had a stack of papers showing the results of every precinct showing I won the election. But I’m still not in that seat. No one ever wanted to look at the facts.”

The delay impacted more than Miller. As both sides wrestled in court, the Taylor School Board voted to close Kennedy High School next year and merge it with the district’s other high school.

The vote was 4-3. Meyers cast the deciding vote. Had he been in office, Miller said he would have voted to save the school.

Not enough workers?

How could such a thing happen?

Canvassers claimed in correspondence that Garrett, the county’s clerk, didn’t provide enough staffers and part-time workers to certify the election last fall.


Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett contends the county’s Board of Canvassers is among the least involved in all of Michigan.

Garrett isn’t talking publicly but her staff released a letter she wrote to Canvassers Vice Chairman Jonathan Kinloch that blasted that suggestion.

“While I applaud your sudden desire to be engaged in the canvass, I also encourage you to refrain from stopping there by simply showing up for the beginning and/or ending of each canvass,” Garrett wrote to Kinloch on June 20.

“Although Wayne County is the largest county in the State of Michigan, our Board of Canvassers is among the least engaged boards throughout the state.”

In most counties, bipartisan boards of canvassers hire part-time staffers to double-check local clerks’ tallies and certify elections. In Wayne County, Garrett has wrested hiring power away from four canvass board members who are paid $25 per day, Kinloch said.

Typically, multiple part-time workers examine election results for each race. Last fall, one staffer was assigned to Taylor, Kinloch said.

“We wouldn’t have had as many problems if we had enough people,” he said.

Garrett’s office didn’t respond to Bridge Magazine’s requests seeking the number of canvass workers. In February, the county denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking a list of them.

The reason: The records don’t exist, the county wrote.

“Do these things feed into conspiracies? Yes,” Brewer said.

“I don’t think there’s any way (elections could be rigged) on a systematic basis, but the sloppiness is concerning and needs to be fixed.”

If I’m so crooked, why run against me?

Accusations of voter fraud are so common in Detroit, meanwhile, that Winfrey doesn’t hide from them. In fact, she’s incorporated them into her campaign.

“If we cheat, as my challengers say, then why would you spend your money and waste your time running against me?” she asked her opponents last week during a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

janice winfrey

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey says a state audit showed there was no fraud, but rampant human error, in last year’s presidential election in Detroit.

Voting problems are legendary in Detroit. Winfrey took office in 2005, succeeding Jackie Currie, who was voted out amid allegations of dead people voting, frequent power outages at precincts and incapacitated seniors being pressured by clerk workers to cast absentee ballots.

During last week’s forum, candidates swapped horror stories about last November’s election.

More than 100 voting machines broke on election day. In one precinct,  nine voters shared a table to cast ballots because there weren’t enough booths. Candidate Ron Creswell said his aunt is still a registered voter even though she died nine years ago. Another, D. Etta Wilcoxon, said she has evidence of absentee ballots being mailed to addresses where homes were razed years ago. And candidate Garlin Gilchrist II said “everything went wrong” when he voted, as his precinct ran out of equipment from pens to privacy screens.

On it went for two hours. In all, only one question from the audience didn’t involve the security of elections.

“That fact that these questions get asked at every voter education forum we’ve participated in is a reflection of the lack of integrity in the process,” said Heaster Wheeler, a former NAACP Detroit Branch president, who is campaigning for clerk.

Winfrey said she’s provided the “highest level of integrity” to Detroit and has dramatically increased staff training.

She said she is vindicated by a state audit of last year’s recounts, which found “no evidence of pervasive voter fraud” or “widespread voting equipment failure.”

The audit concluded that a “multitude of human errors” would have prevented the presidential recount from proceeding in Detroit. The prospect was avoided when a federal judge in December halted the statewide recount that was requested by Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Winfrey blames many of the issues on what she called the state’s “antiquated laws.”

In Michigan, clerks are supposed to reconcile the number of voters who signed in to vote with numbers listed on ballot machine printouts.

If there’s a discrepancy –  such as when voters try repeatedly to insert ballots into machines –  they must be reconciled on election night or by canvassing boards.

If they are not reconciled, mismatched numbers make precincts ineligible for recount. The law also bars recounts if seals on ballot containers and ballot labels are broken or have different numbers than those listed on poll books.

Critics say the law presents a problem: Ballots with obvious signs of tampering –  those in races most in need of recounts –  are ineligible for them.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, has introduced a bill to remove those recount restrictions. It hasn’t received a hearing.

“We think it’s worth discussing whether Michigan should have such strict laws governing when a precinct cannot be recounted,” said Fred Woodhams, spokesman for Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

Michigan’s law about the eligibility of recounts is among the strictest in the nation. Johnson has significantly improved the process, Woodhams said. In years past, roughly a third of all precincts couldn’t be recounted. Now, it’s often less than 10 percent during elections, Woodhams said.

More training

It’s a wonder Michigan doesn’t have more problems, argued Judd Choate, the state elections director of Colorado and president of the National Association of State Elections Directors.

Besides Wisconsin, Michigan is the only large state that allows local municipalities to supervise all elections, Choate said.

Most states give that power to counties, meaning there’s typically only 60 or 70 elections for state officials to oversee, Choate said. In Michigan, there are 1,520 cities and townships that conduct their own elections.

“It’s a very different way of doing it and it presents extraordinary administrative challenges,” Choate said.

He called longtime, recently retired State Elections Director Chris Thomas a "magician" who "did an extraordinary job," considering Michigan's elections structure. Choate also praised Thomas' successor, Sally Williams, adding "I have no idea how they do it."

Michigan and Wisconsin ranked among the worst states last year for the integrity of elections, according to a report from the Election Integrity Project, a joint venture by Harvard University and the University of Sydney.

The ranking extended beyond balloting problems and included such issues as campaign finance and access to voting. The United States didn’t fare well, according to the report, and had as much election integrity as Argentina, Mongolia and Rwanda.

Others contend that legal reforms aren’t necessary in Michigan.

Instead, clerks should focus on training temporary workers –  often seniors –  who make an average of $10 an hour and have to work up to 16 hours on election day, said Sarah Bydalek, city clerk of Walker near Grand Rapids and immediate past president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.

She said most municipalities don’t have the problems of Detroit or Wayne County.

“It’s not about having a law changed,” she said. “All this really does fall down to elections workers.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Mary Fox
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 8:41am

This is horrendous and look at the results. That we cannot recount all ballots is total bull-poop.

Daniel Schifko
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 8:44am

"Long term observers". Your far left views are a joke Phil. This is magizine is a bridge to nowhere.

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 12:21pm

Yes. And when Good Comrade Trump buddy of Great Leader Putin becomes Emperor of the United States we won't have to worry about voting errors anymore because there will only be one candidate, one party and no voting. What an innovative business oriented solution! Turn America into a dictatorship! Democracy is so inefficient and outdated anyway.

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 4:23pm

You may look at the Democrats as the new communist party. Funny you blame the other side for what Democrats really do

Sun, 08/06/2017 - 12:32pm

When fewer votes are cast its hood for regressive conservative politics

Sherry A Wells
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 9:06am

Several groups, including the Green Party, are training people to be poll workers and challengers, especially in Detroit and Wayne County. I have been an election worker in Ferndale many times and it IS possible to train people to do it correctly and courteously. Our voter, ballot and machine counts always matched . And, for example, a record was made each time a voter messed up when marking a ballot and had to be issued a new one. for one example.

Mary R Clark
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 9:26am

Ms Bydalek is correct. Training is critical to the success of any election - no matter whether the oversight is a local municipality or a county. Michigan currently requires worker training every two years. As a local clerk, we require training for every election. Recruiting qualified election workers is always a challenge. It would be nice to see larger businesses become engaged and encourage their employees to work their local elections and to allow that time off be paid time off, in essence treating Election Day like jury duty as occurs in many companies.

Lee Kirk
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 9:31am

After reading the entire story, it was shocking to read the comments at the end of the story from the Walker City Clerk putting the onus on poll workers for the problems Bridge has identified in our election laws. The problems are structural, as the sad story about the Taylor School Board election shows. A high school closed as a result of the botched election. There are real consequences to elections, and while the closing of a high school might not seem significant in the grand scheme of things, it certainly was significant to the residents and students of Taylor. I hope that Bridge and Bridge readers keep on our legislators to bring our elections into the 21st century.

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 10:06am

Training is absolutely critical. So is having more than enough poll workers. Election day should be a national holiday. Businesses should encourage employees to be election workers by treating it like jury duty.

Paul Russo
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 10:18am

Your report shows how serious the voting problem is in Michigan. Major reforms are needed, starting with full control by the state. Local control only hides corruption by claiming incompetent people and lack of training. Both caused by the same local officials. Detroit's problems are even bigger and should have a grand jury investigation. By stopping the recount it shows they knew there was corruption and had to hide it.

Joel A. Levitt
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 11:52am

How many of these problems have been the result of corruption or incompetence is unclear. In either case, we need poll watchers and vote counting watchers appointed by a Federal Court.

Mary Lou Spencer
Mon, 08/07/2017 - 11:17pm

Joel, what we need is well filed and documented ballots, properly preserved and sealed, so that if necessary they can be

Mary Lou Spencer
Mon, 08/07/2017 - 11:19pm

(last intended word of comment):

William C. Plumpe
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 12:17pm

I don't support grievous errors of any kind which this appears to be.
It is true that in many jurisdictions voting machines are old and outdated
and the system has not been updated for decades. Naturally over time things
are going to wear out and cause problems. But as always where the money will
come from is a very critical question especially in tight economic times.
Further there is always going to be the political/bureaucratic angle gumming up the works that will never go away no matter who is in office. It can be lessened somewhat though.
This article just feeds into the false assumption put forth by Trump that there is widespread voter fraud. Simply not true. There are always going to be mistakes made even bad ones like this example but widespread voter fraud is simply a clever sales pitch that is also a lie.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 12:27pm

Two issues with this piece that I take issue with.

"She said she is vindicated by a state audit of last year’s recounts, which found “no evidence of pervasive voter fraud” or “widespread voting equipment failure.”

This is simply a semantic argument to prevent the state from opening a Pandora's Box when it comes to elections. IMHO, if a municipality conducts an elections with such incompetence (i.e. missing seals, poll book numbers not matching), not only is that fraud, but the person in charge of that operation should be brought up on criminal charges and made to wear an orange jumpsuit for the next several years.

Voting is an important responsibility that we have as Americans. These clerks mentioned above obviously don't take that very seriously by their ineptitude.

The other problem here is this.

"The problems coincide with President Trump’s assertions that millions of people across the U.S. illegally voted in last year’s election. Brewer and other elections experts dispute that claim, saying that most of the issues they are complaining of originate from honest mistakes and lack of worker training."

Does anyone want to see their vote negated by someone voting illegally?

I highly doubt that even Mark Brewer would like to see someone wad his ballot up into a ball and throw it into a dumpster right in front of his face, which essentially what you have when you allow it.

Voter fraud may not occur on the scale that Pres. Trump is suggesting, but it does happen (and this is only a small sampling).

One of the ways that this can easily be fixed is to require that everyone voting produces a state issued photo ID.

You already need one to cash a check, apply for a job, board an airplane, buy a house/rent an apartment, enter a federal building or buy a drink, so for anyone to imply that it is burdensome is just checking to see how ignorant you are.

No ID, no subsequent match on voter list, no ballot issued.

Problem easily solved.

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 3:06pm

To suggest "Problem easily solved" solutions ignores the complexity of the issue. Instead of looking at "best practices" in this field and suggesting possible solutions, those who comment point out what is wrong with the article, spewing their own political viewpoint.

The State of MI today is not "better than it once was", but worse. The "businessman" who has been running this state and offering his "problem easily solved" solutions has been wrong more than he has been right.

It takes collaboration, dialogue, intelligence and political will to solve the problems in Michigan today. This does not exist among politicians or businessmen in charge today.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 08/02/2017 - 4:46am

Alright, Bernadette, I'll bite.

Exactly what is so complex here?

Getting a photo ID? Registering to vote?

Those two alone are ridiculously easy to accomplish and neither one requires an army of bureaucrats to help facilitate the process.

And unless you're living in a cardboard box under the I-75 and Springwells bridge, you cannot function in today's society w/o the former.

Sandy O.
Wed, 08/02/2017 - 2:45pm

The state already requires photo id to vote (state issued drivers license or state id), but will also accept military id., passports and some other forms of photo id. This story isn't as much about the actual voters but more so about the process that occurs AFTER citizens vote and the real life effects that occur when careless municipal clerks and poorly trained pollworkers don't follow rules put in place to guard the sanctity of people's votes. If a municipal clerk does not understand this basic premise, they have no business running for public office, period.

S. Dalman
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 2:29pm

Let's not blanket the state for what happens in SouthEast Michigan. We do not have those ongoing problems. S. Dalman

Michael John Greer
Tue, 08/01/2017 - 4:47pm

It's not just down-state. A local judicial election(Clare-Gladwin)about 10 years ago was unable to be recounted due to irregularities in sealing some of the ballot storage bags.

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 9:46am

Does anyone else notice that it is always democrat places that have so much trouble & problems with simple things. Simply try being honest but that 's probably not possible with being democrat. MAGA!

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 9:02pm

Precincts that are ineligible for recounts occurr all over Michigan. The 2016 recount was stopped before we saw the errors in rural Michigan.

David L Richards
Tue, 08/08/2017 - 12:02pm

Lumping the counting mistakes with the issue of timeliness of the request for a recount is a mistake. If the request for a recount was in fact untimely, the county clerk was doing her job in refusing the recount. If there was no legal basis for the determination of the request for recount being untimely, that should be explained with citations. It may be that the law was unclear or that it was changed. It may be that the county was simply unreasonable as seems to be the conclusion from the article, but no basis is given for that conclusion. The fact that a court ruled against the county doesn't show that the county was at fault if the law was unclear.

Nelson Swanberg
Wed, 05/09/2018 - 7:26am

According to Michigan election officials, the 70,000 ballots were counted in down-ballot voting, but it could not be determined whom those 70,000 voters had selected for president. So the votes were tossed out. Had Clinton received those 70,000 votes, she would have won the state of Michigan hands down. When the recount was ordered shut-down, those (probably largely black) votes were, metaphorically speaking, flushed down the toilet and there is no longer a legal means to have them reviewed by human eyes and counted by hand. Without recounts in other states, we have no way of knowing if other large urban areas, where black people tend to reside, had a big pool of votes discarded because the voting machine allegedly could not determine who the voter intended to select. This blatant disenfranchisement of Black voters in Detroit follows a recent erosion of protections under the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court. In Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric Holder(2013), the Supreme Court destroyed section 5 of the Voters Rights Act by disallowing key provisions of the Act as being unconstitutional. Before Shelby, certain states and local governments had to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices. While section 4(b) established a formula that determined which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance based on their histories of discrimination in voting.

Thu, 11/05/2020 - 12:04pm

I'm a conservative, not a Republican, not a Democrat, an independent conservative.
No matter what party you align with, we must have fair and transparent elections.
The system we have now no longer works.
It's too corrupt and it's gone on for far too long.
Many of the people in power have counted on our system being rotten to the core.
That's how so many of them stay in power.