Making a Hash of It: Detroit’s Write-in Ballots Roil Mayoral Primary

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[Image courtesy of stridingmom]

The winner of Detroit’s recent nonpartisan mayoral primary is in doubt after Wayne County officials refused to certify a set of returns that omit about 20,000 write-in votes for the apparent winner – because they were not tallied properly by poll workers. The Detroit Free Press has the details:

A state election panel will have to decide who really won the Detroit mayoral primary after Wayne County election officials on Tuesday refused to certify shocking new election results, which would have invalidated about 20,000 votes and handed the primary win to Benny Napoleon instead of Mike Duggan.

The county board was debating whether to invalidate more than 20,000 write-in votes that were not recorded at polling locations using hash marks, which would cause the result of the Aug. 6 primary to be flipped — with Napoleon, the Wayne County sheriff, receiving more votes than write-in candidate Duggan.

Under Michigan law, hash marks – the system of vertical and horizontal tally strokes used to group items in fives for ease of tabulation – are supposed to be used by poll workers counting write-in ballots:

The proper way for poll workers to keep track of write-in votes is shown in a manual the state provided county boards of canvassers in July 2010. The manual shows a sample poll book with hash marks corresponding with each vote cast for a declared write-in candidate. The hash marks then are to be added up for each declared write-in candidate and a total is to be recorded in each poll book.

No one disputes that some poll workers didn’t use hash marks but instead merely entered a numeric number of ballots on their sheets. [This graphic illustrates the problem.] A significant dispute has emerged, however, about the consequences of those actions:

The manual does not give instructions if hash marks are not recorded in the poll books. However, the manual says any errors discovered in election records during a canvass must be corrected.

“If any of the records are found to be incomplete or to contain errors other than minor omissions, spelling errors or obvious mathematical mistakes, the election inspectors who were responsible for completing the records must be summoned to the canvass to correct the documents,” the state manual says.

Melvin (Butch) Hollowell, a lawyer for the Duggan campaign, said lawyers for Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett and the board of canvassers advised the board to count only ballot books that had tallies marked with hash marks — vertical slashes of four with a horizontal line to mark five — instead of whole numbers. Ballot book tallies had variations for totals, some marked with hashes, some with whole numbers, and some with combinations of the two.

Jocelyn Benson, interim dean of the Wayne State University Law School, said there is no language in state law that requires the recording of hash marks for write-in votes to be counted.

“Nothing in the law says these ballots — if properly cast — should, as a result of an error in tallying, not ultimately be counted,” she said.

Further, the Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that a vote for a write-in candidate should count when the voter’s intent is clear.

Benson said the Wayne County board is proceeding properly by handing off the issue to the state.

It isn’t clear whether or not Detroit trained poll workers to use hash marks, given the likelihood of a write-in campaign by Duggan, who was removed from the official ballot in June because of a residency challenge.

The strangest aspect of the entire affair is that, regardless of which sets of returns you use, Duggan and Napoleon will square off again in November in the general election. Still, the dispute over hash marks is a useful reminder of the need to clarify procedures for poll workers – and decide what to do if those procedures aren’t followed.

3 Comments on "Making a Hash of It: Detroit’s Write-in Ballots Roil Mayoral Primary"

  1. A few comments regarding this post…

    The Michigan Board of State Canvassers will meet on Tuesday, August 27 to continue and complete the canvass of the Detroit primary. The resolution of the write-in votes will likely take a few days. The county is given 14 days to canvass and if they fail to complete the canvass, the canvass by operation of law is transferred to the Board of State Canvassers.

    With regard to hash marks, the Election Law does not specifically mention them. It says: “All computations and tallies shall be made upon the tally sheets used at such election.” This means that the precinct inspectors are supposed to show their work, not just arrive at a final number. There may be more than one way to do this; however, in no case would the absence of hash marks justify the disenfranchisement of the write-in votes.

    The county canvassers have authority to retrieve the actual ballots and make an accurate count if in their judgment there Statement of Votes are not accurate and it appears there are votes that were not counted.

    Regarding training, it is clear the precinct inspectors were trained as there are roughly 615 precincts and 179 didn’t use hash marks. Why the 179 didn’t use them remains to be seen.

    The fact that approximately 18,000 votes are involved was not brought to the Wayne County Board of Canvassers by their staff until the 14th day (the deadline) by which time it was too late to do anything. In my view they took the correct action by not certifying and allowing the canvass to come to the Board of State Canvassers where the 18,000 votes will be reviewed and counted if properly cast.

  2. Why is “the strangest aspect” that the primary limited the field to two candidates, with the top two facing off in November? That’s an extremely common model. Of course this summer primaries can be a problem when they eliminate so many candidates when turnout is typically very low and highly unrepresentative

    • I must not have been clear – what I found strange is the energy being expended on deciding the winner of a “top two” primary when – regardless of the outcome of the write-ins – both candidates are moving on to the general election in November.

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