No Small Stuff: “Chain of Events” Results in Ann Arbor Candidate Being Left Off Ballot


[Image of old City Hall courtesy of flickr user wystan]

Our latest edition of the “no such thing as small stuff in elections” comes to us from Ann Arbor, Michigan where a candidate for council got left off of absentee ballots for the August 5 election. Michigan Live has more:

Hundreds of absentee ballots that have been issued to 3rd Ward voters in Ann Arbor mistakenly left Bob Dascola’s name off the list of candidates for City Council.

Ed Golembiewski, Washtenaw County’s elections director, confirmed the mishap on Friday, estimating it’s going to cost about $3,000 to reprint corrected ballots with Dascola’s name alongside opponents Julie Grand and Sam McMullen.

“Right now we’re in the process of reprinting the ballots and they’re going to be delivered to the Ann Arbor city clerk’s office by noon on Monday, so they can start sending them out,” Golembiewski said on Friday afternoon.

“Those voters who have received the incorrect ballots are going to have a new ballot issued to them and instructions to vote and return that ballot,” he said.

The election is Aug. 5.

Golembiewski said the Ann Arbor clerk’s office issued about 400 of the incorrect absentee ballots before the error was identified by a voter.

The error in this case started with a lawsuit concerning Dascola’s qualifications for office:

Dascola was disqualified as a candidate for City Council earlier this year because city officials said he didn’t meet eligibility requirements found in the city charter. Dascola sued the city and a federal court ruling paved the way for him to appear on the ballot after a judge agreed the city’s eligibility requirements had been deemed unconstitutional in the 1970s and thus aren’t enforceable.

Following the court order, Dascola’s name was supposed to go back on the ballot but was inadvertently removed again as other questions were edited:

Dascola’s name was added to the ballot after the federal court ruling upholding his candidacy, and Government Business Systems, the county’s third-party ballot programmer, sent back proofs that correctly included Dascola’s name.

But then a change to the Aug. 5 ballots was requested by the city of Ypsilanti to remove council races from Ypsilanti ballots where there wasn’t a contested race.

But instead of removing the Ypsilanti council races, a programmer from GBS accidentally removed the Ann Arbor council races, Golembiewski said.

The error was caught during the proofing process and GBS was instructed to put the Ann Arbor council races back on the ballot, Golembiewski said, but the programmer accidentally left off Dascola’s name in the process. The mistake was missed by Golembiewski and the county’s election commission, and the incorrect ballots were printed and mailed to voters.

The county election official’s explanation of the error described it as “a chain of events that obviously is regrettable”. While it is certainly regrettable, I want to emphasize the chain aspect; in this case, we had three or four separate actors (the court, the county, other municipalities and the vendor), each of whom did their part to create the ballot error.

While it’s easy to say that all concerned should have been more careful (which I nonetheless do), the Ann Arbor story is a cautionary tale for anyone managing a multifaceted election process. The possibility of error increases geometrically as each new actor enters the process, meaning that election officials must find a way to balance efforts to simplify their workflows while at the same time managing (and cross-checking) each actor’s contribution. Moreover, election officials everywhere have to be ready to “change on the fly” in the face of ever-more prevalent litigation in the campaigns and elections arena.

Next up for the County and Ann Arbor? Hoping those incorrect ballots don’t end up muddying the outcome. Stay tuned …

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