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Michigan Recount Exposes Voting Machine Failures

The Michigan recount may be over before it really started, but it has already raised some important questions about the reliability of our voting machine infrastructure.

December 8, 2016

The Michigan recount may be over before it really started, but even if it is never completed, it has already raised some important questions.  Specifically, as a result of the recount process starting, we learned that as many as 610 precincts in Wayne County, including 392 in Detroit, had differences between the number of voters in the poll book and the number of ballots counted by voting machines.

I was troubled by these reports, but I wasn’t surprised.  The problems seem to be related to widespread failure of the voting machines on Election Day.  I learned about these problems as they were happening, while working for the Election Protection coalition. Pam Smith, President of Verified Voting, who supported the coalition’s response for technology problems, told me about numerous reports from Detroit, with voting machines going down in locations all over town.

I knew Detroit, like the rest of Michigan, used optical scan machines that were old and needed to be replaced soon. I took some solace in the fact that these failing machines were optical scanners, rather than touch screen machines without a paper trail.

To vote with optical scan machines, a voter must fill out a piece of paper ballot and then scan the ballot through the machine.  If poll workers are properly trained and prepared, a failed machine should not cause too much disruption.  Voters can still fill out ballots, and poll workers can ensure they are placed in a secure box and counted later.  At the close of polling places it is necessary to make sure those ballots are counted, and the total number of ballots is reconciled with the number of people who signed in.

Of course, if poll workers are not trained, or do not have enough resources (like extra bins for storing ballots) the problems can be huge.  For instance, if poll workers don’t provide people with a secure place to place their completed ballots, or if they stop people from voting altogether while machines are down, long lines may result.  We know that long lines can discourage people from voting.  And failing to secure and account for all ballots and any discrepancies at the end of the day can cause confusion and potentially disenfranchise many voters.

I don’t know how long the lines were in Detroit.  I only know that there are reports of discrepancies between the poll books and the machine counts of ballots in hundreds of precincts.  It’s pretty clear that this is related to the problems with the voting machines on Election Day.  I can think of four potential reasons for these reconciliation problems: (1) while the machines were down some ballots were put aside and never counted; (2) some votes were put aside and counted at a central scanner later, and therefore the machine count in the polling place does not match the poll book signatures; (3) replacement machines were brought in, but the poll book signatures were only reconciled with the machine counts of one of two machines; (4) some votes were run through a second time at end of day, or (as Detroit’s Election Director suggested) paper jams caused some votes to be counted more than once.

Regardless of whether the recount goes forward, the State of Michigan should conduct an audit to figure out why this discrepancy seems to be so widespread. Did votes go uncounted?  Were all contingency plans followed for dealing with machines when they failed? Were the state’s reconciliation procedures followed at the closing of polls? If they were, are they sufficient to reconcile discrepancies from 610 precincts?

Unlike many states, Michigan is likely to replace its antiquated equipment before its next major election.  In fact, the state has already solicited bids for new equipment.  But regardless of what kind of equipment it has, it should understand if there were poll worker or procedural failures in Detroit and Wayne County on Election Day, so that it can avoid such failures in the future.  Meanwhile, counties and states around the country are facing a crisis of aging equipment that is more and more likely to fail, with insufficient funds to replace them.

President Obama’s Commission on Election Administration noted in 2013 that we are facing a crisis of aging voting equipment.  In a blog post yesterday, Bob Bauer, co-chair of that Commission asked whether President Elect Trump “will be prepared to work with the Congress, the election administration community, and voting rights organizations around the country on an adequately funded program to replace… worn-out equipment.”

We should certainly hope he does.  The 2016 Presidential election was close, but it wasn’t so close that what happened in Detroit should cast doubt over the entire outcome.  Next time, we might not be so lucky.

(Photo: ThinkStock)