The following essay was written by Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat who was reelected to a second term. Prior to serving as County Clerk, Byrum represented the 67th District in the Michigan House of Representatives for three terms. She is renowned for being banned from speaking on the House floor for saying “vasectomy;” for performing what has been reported as the first same-sex marriage in the State of Michigan following the U.S. District Court ruling that struck down Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage; and for being one of the first counties in the State of Michigan to complete the 2016 State-wide Presidential Recount. Byrum holds a Juris Doctorate degree from MSU College of Law and is a Certified Elections/Registration Administrator (CERA).
When I first heard of the potential presidential recount, I was very concerned about the costs that would be passed on to taxpayers. Specifically, in Ingham County, I estimated that burden would be around $45,180—far greater than the maximum expected reimbursement of $16,875—if I was able to complete the recount within six days. Thankfully, Ingham County was able to complete its Presidential Election Recount in two and a half days. I am still tallying up the costs, though it will be significantly less than originally predicted, but still more than the reimbursement will be.
If anything, this logistical nightmare has shed light on where enhancements can be made. However, there are many who have acted as a Monday Night Quarterback—believing that their outside-looking-in approach is effective to Election reform in Michigan. Using grandiose language and theory is insufficient alone. Experience is key to see real, positive change. This is real life, Professor, and very real consequences.
Truth be told, there are already numerous policies and procedures to ensure that Michigan’s elections are transparent and accurate.
Can better, more in-depth post-election audits be conducted? Absolutely. However, the most important part to the audit process should be accountability and follow up. I would like to see audit findings used timely and tactfully across the state so that all county and local clerks can learn from those findings.
Currently, the Michigan Bureau of Elections randomly selects cities and townships throughout the state to undergo post-election audits which are performed by county clerks and, sometimes, even by the Bureau of Elections. These random audits, which occur within 30 days after most elections, ensure that policies are being followed by municipal clerks. It is my hope that as a result of the Presidential Election Recount, there will be more in-depth steps added to the audit process. Those steps should include making sure the proper number of voted ballots are inside the ballot container, which would correspond with the number of ballots issued less spoiled or provisional ballots. In addition, checking for proper ballot container seals and overall security of the ballot container should become more of a priority.
Michigan is much stricter on whether or not a precinct is able to be recounted than many other states, something that I believe is appropriate. Michigan elections are very thorough and we keep paper trails of everything. I believe paper ballots continue to be the most secure way to conduct elections so that there is always a way to verify votes.
However, Michigan has a very decentralized election process. As Ingham County Clerk, I am responsible for programming the election, printing ballots and reporting at night. The local municipal clerks are responsible for public testing and conducting the election on Election Day. Keeping in mind that many local municipal election officials only conduct elections once every year (if that). County Clerks conduct elections at least twice a year.
In Michigan, election equipment (optical scan) utilized by both county and local clerks must be state certified, which means all of the operating election equipment must meet certain criteria as established by the Michigan Bureau of Elections. Further, the equipment must also be certified by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). Before every election, a public testing must be conducted by each local clerk on the election equipment. This testing runs the optical scan tabulators for every possible way a ballot may be voted and ensures that the tabulator reads all of the ballots properly or relays the appropriate error message.
During the Presidential Election Recount in Ingham County, I noticed that many of the differences in the certified election results versus the recount results were the consequence of individuals who voted straight party and then voted for an invalid write-in candidate. For example, many voted straight party republican, and then wrote in Ben Carson for President. Since Ben Carson was not a valid write-in candidate, the vote is tabulated for the Republican nominee—relying on the voter’s straight party vote.
Please keep in mind that the rules for calculating valid write-in votes or reverting back to the straight party votes can be confusing for election workers, especially after working over 12 hours at a polling location on Election Day. Unless the County Board of Canvassers goes through each precinct, (Ingham County has 138, including absent voter counting boards) the write-in votes may not be caught.
Also during the Ingham County Presidential Election Recount, I noticed many incorrect markings. In Ingham County, one must connect the arrow next to the candidate they would like to vote for. In other counties, one must fill in an oval next to the candidates’ names. Circling the name of the candidate is not a valid vote and the optical scan will not pick up such a mark as a vote. However, some recount workers saw the consistent marks across the entire ballot and considered it a valid vote.
Can the election process in Michigan improve? Of course. I believe this improvement will start with new election equipment. The Michigan Bureau of Elections, with the input of many municipal and county clerks, has been working on obtaining new election equipment for a couple of years and is expected to begin delivery in February 2017.
Certainly there are other state-wide lessons to be learned from this Presidential Election Recount and I look forward to continuing to work closely with the Michigan Bureau of Elections to implement necessary changes.