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Human error, Dominion voting equipment fuel false fraud claims in Michigan

Related: Michigan GOP unveils election ‘reforms.’ Most would make voting harder.

Related: Michigan GOP mounts ‘election integrity’ push. Democrats fear suppression.

LANSING — When Antrim County’s Republican clerk reported last week that Democrat Joe Biden had trounced President Donald Trump in the fiercely GOP region of northern Michigan, officials and experts correctly questioned what turned out to be a clerical mistake.

But Trump and his supporters cried foul, and days after the error was fixed, they continue to mischaracterize it as evidence of potentially widespread irregularities across the country. 

The unsubstantiated allegation challenges the accuracy of Dominion Voting Systems equipment used in 69 of Michigan’s 83 counties and dozens of states, along with third-party software from ElectionSource of Grand Rapids, which the GOP has claimed is used in 47 Michigan counties. 

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Eric Trump, the president’s son, tweeted a story about Dominion machines in Michigan on Monday and added his own commentary: “Software from hell!” 

As the Trump campaign prepares a legal assault on results in battleground states, Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Tony Zammit told Bridge Michigan that attorneys are examining other counties that use Dominion machines and ElectionSource software “as well as other irregularities that we've seen from county boards and other polling places throughout the state.”

But the Antrim County mistake was a “one-off” caused by an “unusual set of circumstances” and is not evidence of big election problems, said J. Alex Halderman, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security and Society.

“If there are more widespread problems, they're likely to come to light through routine post-election procedures,” he said. “But it’s unlikely that there were any problems of great enough magnitude to influence the result in Michigan.”

Biden beat Trump by nearly 150,000 votes statewide, 50.6 percent to 47.9 percent.

A total of 18,059 voters cast ballots in Antrim County, which acknowledged the error Wednesday and corrected it Friday to Trump beating Biden by 2,494 votes.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson published a lengthy explanation of the Antrim incident Friday evening, describing it as “human error” caused by the county’s failure to update election management software it used to report unofficial results.

Dominion voting machines tallied the Antrim County votes correctly, but ElectionSource software used to combine the results from individual voting machines was not properly configured, according to Benson’s office. 

“As with other unofficial results reporting errors, this was an honest mistake and did not affect any actual vote totals,” the Department of State said. “Election clerks work extremely hard and do their work with integrity. They are human beings, and sometimes make mistakes. However, there are many checks and balances that ensure mistakes can be caught and corrected.”

Several county clerks that use Dominion voting equipment told Bridge they experienced no irregularities with the election software. 

Barb Byrum, clerk of Ingham County, which uses Dominion voting equipment, said bipartisan county boards of canvassers are currently meeting to review election results, which will serve as another opportunity to check for errors in results reporting.  

Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a Republican who was the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018, told Bridge she has "full faith" in the Dominion product that both Antrim and Kent counties use. 

Michigan’s 83 counties are currently canvassing local results to identify any other potential errors, a routine process that will be followed by a full statewide canvass, which must be completed before any candidate can request a recount. 

Beyond Antrim, none of the election results in counties that use Dominion equipment were outside historical norms. Trump won 63 of the 69 counties and the six counties with the equipment that Biden carried — Wayne, Ingham, Saginaw, Marquette, Kent and Leelanau — are either Democratic strongholds or are becoming more liberal.

What really happened in Antrim

The Antrim County error wasn’t caused by any programming error, said Halderman, the U-M computer science professor. Rather, vote tallies from the Dominion machines did not match ElectionSource candidate “definitions,” which are essentially spreadsheet headers. 

Shortly before the election, Antrim noticed that two local races were not included in those candidate definitions. The county had ElectionSource make a new version of the file and applied it to machines in precincts where those local races were on the ballot, Halderman said. 

The county should have also applied those new candidate definitions to voting machines in most other parts of the county, but it did not. In spreadsheet terms, that means headers did not match the columns in many precincts, where Trump votes were initially reported as Biden votes.

“It was ultimately a human error,” Halderman said. “The election officials in Antrim should have known that all of the election definitions had to be the same… So it’s not really about the software systems. It's about software configurations that didn't match.”

Dominion did not reply to a request for comment, and ElectionSource President Jeff Delongchamp did not respond to a voicemail. In a statement, ElectionSource said it and counties that use its software “settle for nothing less than accurate election results”

There was not a “glitch” in the software, the firm said. “The Election Management Software performed exactly and accurately.”

Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy did not respond to Bridge requests, but in a statement shared by ElectionSource, the Republican official said the county had made a “minor correction” to a ballot that caused “compounding changes to how the software totals and presented the data.”

The initially skewed results “were a result of procedural misunderstanding that the Clerk’s Office had never before experienced,” Guy said. 

Halderman said it is fair to call the mistake a glitch, because it was a “real anomaly,” albeit one that was “ultimately minor in character.” Even though human error is to blame, the state, county and software vendors should learn lessons from the incident, he said. 

“The software should be designed to detect and prevent this kind of glitch,” Halderman told Bridge.

“Just like in aviation, when you have an accident that's caused by pilot error, we want to go back and figure out how we can change the technology and the training to make sure that that kind of error can't happen.”

Election security

Leaders in Michigan's Republican-led Legislature signaled Friday that they plan to subpoena records from Antrim County as they investigate "allegations regarding the integrity" of the election. Lawmakers are also pursuing records from Benson’s office and Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey. 

Experts say what happened in Antrim amounts to a clerical error, of which there were several across the state last week. All were quickly fixed but have been cited by Trump supporters as evidence of wrongdoing.

In Shiawassee County, for instance, Republican Clerk Caroline Wilson accidentally added a zero to Biden’s vote total, temporarily giving him a major boost in unofficial results. The mistake was quickly fixed, but not before a right-wing news site ran an inflammatory headline falsely declaring that a “massive dump” of Biden ballots suddenly appeared overnight in Michigan.

In Rochester Hills, GOP Clerk Tina Barton’s office mistakenly transmitted an absentee ballot count file twice, temporarily boosting Biden’s vote total in a handful of precincts. It was quickly corrected, but Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel cited it as an example of “voting irregularities” in a Friday news conference announcing a new legal team in Michigan. 

Barton responded that evening: “As a Republican, I am disturbed that this is intentionally being mischaracterized to undermine the election process.”

Dominion machines have also been questioned in Georgia, where two counties made errors when encoding voting access cards in electronic poll books. 

But like in Antrim County, those errors were quickly fixed and appear to be the result of small-scale human error, said Ian Kennedy of the Election Integrity Partnership, a rapid response group from the University of Washington and the Stanford Internet Observatory that was formed to address mis- and disinformation. 

"I think what you see is people reaching for something that can be attributed broadly across counties, instead of specifically, and the evidence doesn't really support that," Kennedy said. 

"The election results are really clear, and in order for them to change, there would have to be something systematically wrong. And so this, even though it's false, offers a false narrative of systemic wrongdoing. But like other claims of voter fraud, there's no evidence for it."

Halderman co-chairs the Michigan Election Security Advisory Commission created by Benson to identify weaknesses in the state system and recommend reforms. 

The commission last month released a report detailing a host of potential Election Day problems, including cyberattacks from foreign nations, software problems and power outages. 

“I don’t think the Antrim County incident sheds any light on security problems,” he said. “The state has explained what happened in a way that makes complete technical sense.”

Michigan’s system may be vulnerable to hacks, but not as vulnerable as many other states, according to the commission report. The state uses ballots, which can be audited and reviewed after the election to ensure accuracy and procedural integrity.  

"I thought the Michigan election overall was quite orderly, and the state was very well prepared going into it," Halderman said Monday. "There are still checks and auditing procedures left to do that I think people who are concerned about the result should continue paying attention to. This is how we get evidence the election process is right and one that everyone can believe in.”

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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