Five weeks after a national scandal involving broken Detroit voting machines and ineffective poll workers, state Elections Director Chris Thomas said Wednesday evening that the city will get all new voting machines in time for the 2017 mayoral and City Council elections.
But broken machines were not the biggest problem Detroit endured election night. Citing a memo he just received, Thomas said there were dozens of other problems that occurred Nov. 8.
“I got an e-mail yesterday from Wayne County showing me what the issues were on (Detroit) polling places and precincts, and quite frankly, it was somewhat shocking,” he said.
Thomas said his staff soon will head to Detroit to get a better understanding of why the city has such problems running elections and to find ways to help.
Among the problems cited in the memo, he said: Ninety-one precinct reports were not delivered on time. County officials had to re-create missing poll books. Five precincts had no poll books, so Detroit election officials had to find voter applications and re-create the books — and hundreds of poll worksheets had either too few or too many ballots.
Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, in an earlier exclusive interview, said Wednesday that the city should have already had new machines to replace the 10-year-old models, but that only the state can purchase them. She said that if Thomas didn’t authorize them, she would find a way to purchase them herself.
“We had the rollout (of new machines) in our budget,” Winfrey said. “No money was appropriated by the state. We are hopeful that we will have machines in 2017, and I suggest to you that tomorrow there will be a plan rolled out for those machines. If not, we’re going to do like we always do in this raggedy city. We’re going to make it work.”
As for the other problems — all involving poll workers — Winfrey said Detroit has struggled to recruit elections inspectors and precinct workers for years. The task has fallen to older residents willing to work 15- to 18-hour days for only $150. The average age for city poll workers is 68.
She said she created a new program, Democracy in the D, and sent requests to 100 companies across the city asking them to encourage their employees to volunteer as poll workers and have the day off. Only one company responded — Quicken Loans. It sent 150 people, who all worked at Cobo Center.
Detroit has Jill Stein to thank for revelations regarding the faulty machines and poll worker errors. Had the Green Party presidential nominee not instigated a recount of the Michigan votes, no one would have known about the broken machines or ballots left at precincts, such as what happened with Detroit’s Precinct 152.
“The issue is simple,” Thomas said. “When they opened the sealed transfer can, it had 52 ballots. It was supposed to have 307. So that’s a fairly shocking development for people.”
The simple explanation, Winfrey said, is the poll workers forgot.
Voters slide their ballots into a tabulator, and the paper actually falls into the tabulator bin.
Poll workers empty the tabulator bins throughout the day and evening and transfer the ballots to cans to be sealed and taken to election headquarters.
What apparently happened is, at the end of the night, some poll workers closed their precincts without emptying the tabulator bin a final time. Or, if conspiracy theorists are to be believed, poll workers ran the same ballots through the machine on purpose to get a certain number, and left the ballots in the bin, where they were found a week and a half later.
Thomas said the tabulators recorded the correct number of votes. He said he believed the problems were human error. Winfrey confirmed that.
“They filled out their paperwork, took the transfer case to the receiving board and brought me my memory card,” she said. “But they left the ballots in the ballot container. People forget we have over 600 precincts. And you may find it hard to believe that the most important thing, the ballots, were left. But in their haste to end their day, they forgot to fill the transfer case.
“And as the economy improves, the quality of the poll worker diminishes,” she said. But she said she plans to reach out to Detroit companies and universities again to find younger workers.
Winfrey takes issue with anyone who says her department wasn’t prepared for Nov. 8.
She said she started planning for the 2016 election after the 2012 presidential election when workers had to exchange 56 machines for machines that broke down. She wasn’t just concerned about technology, she said. She was concerned about the massive turnout predicted for President Barack Obama.
“We did long-line studies with the city of Chicago,” she said. “We did think tank studies on how to recruit workers. And we came back and implemented all of these best practices. We identified 72 precincts where we knew we’d have 500-plus voters and instead of having one check-in table, we had two tables and two inspectors. Voters did not have to wait in one line.”
But Winfrey admits that she didn’t ask for new machines or tell state officials about previous problems, including those 56 broken machines in 2012.
Thomas said no one sounded any alarms, but even if they had, the broken machine issue may be overblown.
“I’m under no impression that they needed new machines more than anybody else prior to 2016,” he said. "If they had problems with 56 machines, they had contracts to get them repaired. If they put out 30 machines (on election night) out of over 600 machines, I don’t see that as a big issue.”
When told that Detroit officials said it was 87 machines, Thomas said that isn’t what they told him.
“I’m not arguing that the machines need to be replaced, but I think it’s a hard argument to make that out of 600 machines, that’s a lot. It’s not like this system is totally limping over the line. There are jurisdictions that have had just as many elections as Detroit, and size doesn’t really make any difference."
That, he said, is because Detroit has fewer voters in their precincts than many jurisdictions, so the machines are used about the same.
“Most of their precincts are below a thousand regular voters,” he said. “With a 50% turnout, they have 300 to 500 voters where many jurisdictions average around 1,200.”
Thomas said that Detroit had a large number of precincts that required (post-election) work at the county level.
“We’re going to go down and have some long talks with Janice and Daniel (Detroit elections director Daniel Baxter) and their staff and see what’s going on and where we can be of assistance in working with them through the process,” Thomas said.
“We certainly don’t want — we’re not into trying to push around penalties and things like that. What we’re trying to do is help her figure out how to handle her elections and come up with a better result. We’ve done this in a number of cities and had success, Flint being one. With Detroit, it’s going to need a very aggressive recruitment for precinct inspectors. If there’s a weak link, it’s the precinct inspectors, either their training or ability to handle the job.”Democratizing ElectionsMichigan