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Election recount reforms pass Michigan Senate over GOP objections

Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, standing at a podium in the Michigan Legislature
Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, said her legislation was about improving Michigan’s recount process to dissuade “frivolous” requests but allow more ballots to be retallied. (Bridge photo by Jordyn Hermani)
  • Michigan’s Democratic-led Senate approves proposal to overhaul ballot recount procedures in the case of contested elections
  • The plan would allow more ballots to be recounted but increase fees and bar canvassers from investigating election fraud
  • Republicans opposed the plan, arguing it would remove a safeguard against fraud. Democrats say those claims are best handled by law enforcement

LANSING — A sweeping plan to reform Michigan's election recount process passed the state’s Democratic-led Senate on Tuesday amid partisan tensions as lawmakers debated the role of bipartisan canvassers. 

The proposal would solve a long-standing issue in Michigan elections by allowing county officials to recount precincts that are “out of balance” because the number of physical ballots does not exactly match the local clerks’ count of voters. 

But the legislation has proven controversial because it would also make clear that county canvassers – two Republicans and two Democrats each – should focus on remedying potential “errors” in a recount but not investigate “fraudulent or illegal voting,” which Democrats say should be left to law enforcement. 


Republicans uniformly voted against the bills, with some alleging the changes would weaken the state’s protections against election fraud. But supporters contend the plan would drive home the distinction between recounts and proper criminal investigations.


“We’ve got other areas of law that talk about fraud, that talk about tampering, but when we’re talking about a recount ... let’s make sure that what we’re talking about with a recount is the actual re-tally of the votes,” sponsoring Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, said in March committee testimony. 

In recent years, canvassers at the state and county level have faced long lines of activists demanding investigations into election fraud claims, though those bodies don’t have the authority to initiate them. Those demands intensified after the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump lost Michigan by 154,188 votes. 

Trump did not request a recount, but allies claimed without evidence that Michigan’s own post-election audits had been inadequate and demanded a so-called “forensic audit” of ballots — including a hand recount of all ballots. A widely-criticized partisan audit in Arizona conducted on similar grounds concluded with little change in that state’s result.

A GOP-led state Senate panel spent months studying Michigan’s 2020 contest and determined there was no evidence of widespread fraud.

But removing references to fraud in the recount process could further undermine confidence in the election process, Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Groveland Township Republican and former Secretary of State, argued Tuesday. 

“Saying we can’t even look at fraud or potential illegal activity during recounts seems counterproductive to me,” Johnson said. “If they see fraud or tampering” during a recount, “there’s nothing that can be done.”

Other legislators went further. 

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, claimed the bills "sanction the potential legal ability to cheat on elections in Michigan," without detailing how that would be possible.

Democrats, however, pointed out there is nothing in the legislation to stop legitimate criminal investigations if evidence is discovered during a recount. 

“We don't want to confuse people about where to present claims of fraud,” Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, told reporters after Tuesday’s vote. 

Local clerks and nonpartisan groups like the Campaign Legal Center have lined up in support of the bills, which were approved by majority Democrats and now head to the state House for further consideration. 

The legislation would make it more expensive for candidates to force a recount — a necessity, Democrats argue, to counter “frivolous” recounts, such as the partial 2016 recount requested by Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, who finished a distant fourth with roughly 1 percent of the vote. 

The proposal would double per-precinct recount costs, which would range between $250 and $500 depending on how close the race was, and could rise with inflation. Candidates are entitled to a refund if the recount changes the result. 

The legislation would also change the threshold to trigger an automatic recount in very close races. That currently happens if an election is decided by 2,000 votes or fewer. The new gap would be 0.1% under the legislation, which would have equated to 4,391 votes in the 2022 gubernatorial election Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won by nearly 470,000

Precincts where the poll book doesn’t square with the number of votes counted would also be available for recounts, something that isn’t possible under current law.

Detroit in particular has been plagued with clerical errors in balancing precincts in the past. In 2016, more than a third of all Detroit precincts were out of balance, meaning they could not be recounted. In 2017, the city could only recount 33 out of 160 precincts in a contested clerk race. 

In November 2020 close to three-quarters of Detroit’s absentee ballot precincts were out of balance in their vote tallies — sometimes by very few ballots — along with 46% of in-person tallies, which was quickly seized upon by conspiracy theorists.

Monica Palmer and William Hartmann cited the imbalances as reason to initially vote against certifying that election when they served on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers in 2020. They later changed their votes.


Under the proposal, precincts where ballot totals did not exactly match could still be recounted if the misaligned counts don’t become worse during the recount, or if a broken ballot box seal is explained to county canvassers in a sworn affidavit and “satisfactory” manner. 

“Human error, it happens, and shouldn’t be a reason not to recount a precinct,” Chang, the bill’s sponsor, said in earlier committee testimony. “If anything we should be recounting those precincts so we get to greater accuracy.”

The proposal would allow precincts to be recounted if they were out of balance because a voter obtained a ballot but walked out with it, for instance, or if a county employee accidentally broke a seal when transporting ballot containers, Oakland County Elections Director Joe Rozell said in committee.

"We have these anomalies that can't be corrected in a canvass,” he said. “This bill will go a long way towards addressing those types of situations."

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