Michigan Mismatch: Reconciliation Issues Block Recount

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[Image via milesfinchinnovation]

While there is disagreement about the presidential recount underway in Michigan – first in the court of public opinion and now the courts – many eyes are now turning to a state law that prohibits a precinct from being recounted if it cannot be reconciled; that is, the total number of ballots cast don’t match the number of names in the poll book. The Detroit Free Press has more:

A single missing ballot was enough to scuttle the recount of Rochester Hills precinct 11.

The computerized poll book listed the names of 848 voters who cast ballots there, but the ballot box contained just 847 ballots. So where is the other ballot? The poll workers’ notes offered no explanation.

“It didn’t match on the canvass and it doesn’t match now,” said Joe Rozell, Oakland County’s director of elections. “This precinct is not recountable.”

Under Michigan law, a precinct can’t be recounted if the poll book and ballot box numbers don’t match, unless there is a valid explanation. In such cases, the results from the original election night tally stand.

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t confined to a single precinct; indeed, it affects hundreds of precincts statewide:

In Wayne County, about one-third of precincts showed discrepancies during the November canvass, said Krista Haroutunian, chair of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. Those discrepancies could make those precincts — 610, including 392 in Detroit — ineligible for recount, though a final decision has yet to be made.

The problems raise questions about the overall accuracy of Michigan’s vote, said Keenan Pontoni, state coordinator for Recount Michigan, the effort of Green Party candidate Jill Stein to recount Michigan’s 4.8 million ballots, which produced a 10,704 vote victory for Republican Donald Trump in the presidential race.

Michigan’s law appears to be unusual in this regard – especially since reconciliation errors are usually minor and attributable to human error:

Mark Grebner, a longtime political consultant who’s studied Michigan elections for decades, said Michigan differs from other states when it comes to recount procedures.

“Michigan law is stupid on this point,” Grebner said. “It makes no sense, and it should be fixed. Other states don’t do this.”

Grebner said that the mismatch between the number of ballots in a box and the number in the poll book are most likely the sign of human error on the part of poll workers, who are supposed to reconcile the numbers before closing the precinct for the night. But that often happens after midnight, and poll workers have been on the job since dawn.

“A lot of these people are older folks, and they’ve been working 15 hours,” Grebner said.

Sometimes the numbers don’t match, but poll workers explain the discrepancy.

For example, if a ballot is challenged because the voter didn’t have identification, the ballot is placed in a challenge envelope and counted separately. Poll workers are supposed to note that in their end-of-night report. But if they leave it out, the number of ballots in the box will not equal the number of ballots in the poll book.

Other errors also can kill a precinct recount: On election night, when poll workers finish their work, the ballots are locked in a ballot box with a seal that includes a serial number. That number is then logged in the poll book.

But Grebner said it’s easy for someone to transpose a number or a letter when they write it down.

Whether or not you think the Michigan recount is necessary with regard to the outcome of the presidential race (reminder: I am on Team No), this issue is one that deserves further scrutiny.

Preventing a recount by law because of minor reconciliation errors (which other states don’t do) is a bad way to go for two reasons. First, errors happen; poll workers get tired, voters get frustrated, machines break – and requiring perfection before one can review the results of precinct is an unnecessarily high bar to clear. Second, it creates an incentive for someone who doesn’t want a precinct to be reviewed to create a simple reconciliation mismatch, which locks the results in place. I don’t think every recount should become what Merle King calls a fishing trip, but I also don’t think it makes sense to declare hundreds of precincts off-limits because of minor reconciliation errors.

I am under no illusion that Michigan’s legislature – which has battled over a wide range of issues including voter ID and straight-ticket voting – is suddenly going to join hands and solve this problem. But hopefully the state’s election community can prevail upon policymakers to consider how to address the issue and create conditions where minor reconciliation issues don’t block a recount but are merely another small issue to resolve when they occur.

I won’t hold my breath, but I’ll certainly keep my eyes open. Stay tuned …

1 Comment on "Michigan Mismatch: Reconciliation Issues Block Recount"

  1. The logic behind the Michigan law seems approximately the same as the Minnesota courts applied to Minneapolis Ward 3, Precinct 1, in the 2008 Coleman/Franken contest. The idea was that the machine count from election night was the best available evidence, given that an envelope of ballots had apparently gone missing. Counting just the available ballots would have been unjust. However, as you say, applying that same logic in the case of a very minor error makes a lot less sense than when an entire envelope is at issue.

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