Report outlines what went wrong with ballot shortages

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published October 4, 2018

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OAKLAND COUNTY — You’ve heard of “throwing money at a problem,” but in the case of ballot shortages across Oakland County during the August primary election, that’s exactly what’s needed.

On Aug. 7, as the dinner hour approached during one of the country’s most highly anticipated midterm primary elections in recent memory, precincts around the county — and around the country, for that matter — panicked as they fell short on the number of ballots needed to serve the voters in line. The turnout was record-breaking.

It took hours, but each voter was able to cast a ballot, and as a result, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners created an ad hoc committee to investigate the shortage. Last week, the Ad Hoc Committee on Oakland County Election Infrastructure came back with its recommendations based on an investigation of the August primary.

“After conducting an extensive review and analysis of the ballot shortages that occurred on Election Day, we are confident our recommendations, if implemented, would prevent a repeat of serious problems many voters experienced at the polls on Aug. 7,” said committee co-chair Tom Berman, R-Keego Harbor.

In the days after the election, fingers pointed in different directions as to the cause of the shortage. Thirty municipal clerks signed their names to a press release stating that the fault was with the office of Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown, who they said didn’t order adequate numbers of ballots for each municipality and didn’t authorize more to be printed on-site.

The report found that about 140 precincts experienced shortages, and nearly three-quarters of precincts had to resort to emergency ballot procedures.

Brown refuted those claims at the time, and in a recent interview she said that while ballots were not ordered at 100 percent of registration — a common practice for a primary — she ordered more than was required by the state of Michigan, and the fault lies in the number of ballots spoiled by voters.

“We had some voters spoiling as many as five ballots,” Brown said. “One municipality had a spoil rate of about 20 percent. A normal primary, that should be around 1 or 2 percent.”

Spoiling a ballot means, in essence, not following directions and making the ballot uncountable. In the case of a primary, the likely culprit was the tendency for voters to tick boxes for candidates in opposing parties.

“We need to basically educate voters to stay in their lane,” Brown explained. 

Where does the education start? Brown has some ideas, like print ads and public service announcements. But the resources should be there, since one of the ad hoc committee’s recommendations was to fund ballots for 100 percent of registration for future primary elections. That might not be in the cards, though, Brown said.

“Nobody needed 100 percent in August. We’re trying to find a balance of enough ballots for everyone without being wasteful,” she said. “We had one precinct with less than 8 percent turnout, so it would be silly to print 100 percent there. That’s a lot of waste.”

The funding granted to the Oakland County Clerk’s Office for the next August primary election is around $225,000 for supplies — including ballots — and voter education. That’s on top of the normal $590,000 allocated for that line item. Around $25,000 of those funds will be devoted to voter education efforts and to encourage the state Legislature to enact policies that would streamline voting, like returning to straight-party voting, which has been eliminated for the first time this year.

“That’s going to confuse a lot of people. They’re used to coming in and seeing that party logo at the top (as a guide), and that won’t be there. So what that means to us is there will likely be lines,” Brown said.

“This election demonstrated that you cannot take people for granted when they are hungry for change,” ad hoc committee co-chair Nancy Quarles, D-Southfield, said in a prepared statement. “There is a tremendous level of excitement about the political process this year from young people, women, minorities and many others. This committee listened, learned and is recommending steps to (be) taken to protect the rights of all voters to cast a ballot.”

Those steps, Brown said, are good for her department and for voters, and she’s ultimately pleased with the recommendations, many of which came from Brown’s own advisements that she provided in a 21-page reports during the committee’s investigation. 

Luckily, she admitted grudgingly, the ends did justify the means.

“Did I consider the investigation an affront, or did I think it was a good thing? Both,” Brown said. “I thought it was a bit pointed, particularly after learning that in the 2006 general election, before I got here, there was a ballot shortage in Oakland County. ... And, not sure if you know this, it’s required by law to order ballots at 100 percent for November elections. And there was no investigation at that time.”

Since the next election is in November, there will be a ballot for every voter at the polls. Though, as Brown explained, there’s expected to be longer waits with the elimination of straight-party voting. 

“We’re trying to get the public to come up with an Election Day plan,” she said, adding that those who can vote absentee should consider doing so. “If you usually come and vote on your lunch hour, that may not work. So we’re asking people to have a plan — get a sitter, do what you need to do to vote.”

To see the full report, visit oakgov.com/boc.