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What we learned from the recount in Michigan

Dec 12, 2016

I’ve been wrong about a number of things this year. I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win the presidential election, but then again, almost nobody did.

More recently, I didn’t think there would be anything startling if there was a statewide recount of Michigan’s votes. I was partly right about that. They did manage to recount a little more than 40% of the vote before the recount was stopped.


When they did, Hillary Clinton had gained a net of 102 votes statewide. It was clear there was no way she was going to gain enough to overcome Trump’s nearly 11,000 vote margin.

In Wisconsin, where the recount was nearly finished as of this morning, she had gained a grand total of 25 votes statewide out of nearly 3 million counted.

But we did learn something highly disturbing.

In many places, the vote retrieval and storage systems were a mess.

In many places, the vote retrieval and storage systems were a mess. This was particularly true in Detroit, where in more than half the precincts, the number of votes turned in did not match the number of voters listed.

In Gibraltar, another Wayne County suburb, a ballot box was improperly sealed with duct tape. In one Detroit precinct, the number of ballots turned in was far fewer than the number of people records show voted. This led a Republican poll watcher who is a friend of mine to speculate that votes had been run through the counting machine more than once.

What apparently happened instead was that they were tossed into a plastic tub, carelessly and illegally. Republicans were oddly desperate to stop the recount, and they eventually prevailed, after a Michigan Supreme Court decision in which the justices voted along party lines.

But while I thought the recount itself was unnecessary in the first place, I was convinced that completing it as far as possible was essential after the problems started showing up -- not because there was the slightest chance the outcome would change.

... we owe it to all the citizens to find out everything that's wrong so we can fix it ... a thorough investigation is needed.

But we owe it to all the citizens to find out everything that’s wrong so we can fix it.

Some of this may be the fault of local clerks and elections officials, and a thorough investigation is needed. I would think that the jobs of those responsible in Detroit and Wayne County are and should be in jeopardy. In a democracy, nothing is as sacred as the integrity of the ballot.

Yet some of this may also be the fault of statewide officials. It has been well documented that Detroit precincts often don’t have as many voting stations as they need, and that equipment is often also inferior and subject to breakdowns. This amounts to a form of voter suppression when people cannot wait in line for long periods of time.

The Michigan Legislature has been adamantly opposed to making it easier for people to vote. This is morally wrong, and we should make further efforts to call them on it. Lastly, we should not assume these are only so-called inner city problems.

Many voters’ faith in democracy has been shaken by the fact that we are about to have a president who lost the popular count by nearly 3 million votes. The last thing we need is anything that further casts doubt on the integrity of our elections.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.