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Michigan Secretary Of State Conducts Election Audit In Washtenaw County

Sep 6, 2019

As part of an effort to ensure election security, State of Michigan officials were in Washtenaw County on Thursday for an audit.  The Secretary of State's Office wants voters to feel confident that their votes are accurately counted. 


A special election audit was conducted Thursday in Washtenaw County that involved results from a local school bond proposal.  89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan was present for the audit and has the story.

State Official: What you’re going to do when you pull the ballot is you’re going to put a placeholder in, which is a colored piece of paper.

About 50 city, township and county clerks took part in a post-election audit pilot in Washtenaw County.  It was hosted by the Michigan Secretary of State's Office at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's administration building.  The unofficial audit took a sample of 700 ballots from the August 6th primary election in which voters were asked if they wanted to approve a $53 million bond proposal for the school district.  A measure that passed.  Jonathan Brater is the legal policy director for the Michigan Department of State and explains the audit process.

Jonathan Brater: In which you essentially select a sample of the ballots and ensure that what you look at physically on the ballot, matches the marks on what the machines were.  What we're basically doing is spot checking in a sense that when the optical machine read the paper ballots that it actually read them correctly.

Clerks were paired-up for the project in a room filled with 126 ballot containers from various counties, including Washtenaw and Wayne.  Brater explains why the school bond proposal was selected for the audit.

Jonathan Brater: We chose a school election that goes across multiple counties because it sort of helps us scale up to doing it eventually state-wide.  The counties have a lot of different jurisdictions, they use different election equipment, so it helps us to look closer at a state-wide process.

Since the audit is unofficial, results would not impact official election results for the August election.  That means, no new security measures would be adapted as a result of this audit.  But the Secretary of State’s Office is interested in developing future programs to improve the election process despite not having any serious issues right now.  Ed Golembiewski is the director of elections for Washtenaw County.  We chatted for a bit as clerks helped with the audit.

Jorge: Sometimes people hear the word audit and they're concerned already.  But do you think this helps bring more transparency when it comes to the election process in the county?

Ed Golembiewski: Yes, I do.  I think this type of audit, espcially risk limiting audit gives a peek into the process that the public doesn't typically get.  Ballots of course become public record after the election and it could be seen by anyone.  This means that process provides a sampling that we can take a look to see certain number of ballots, compare that tally to what was actually tabulated on election night by the auditing.  Small number of ballots have a great level of confidence that you can trust the outcome of the election.

Golembiewski says continuing to train election volunteers will be key to ensure the best practices for the electoral process. 

Ed Golembiewski: We're relying on a small army of poll workers every single election to administer the process which can be complicated sometimes for poll workers.  But we try, but the reason we need to train is to make this process as easy as possible for voters.  We want this to be a simple act of enetering the polling location, receiving a ballot, casting it and walking out the door.

Ann Arbor City Clerk Jackie Beaudry took part in the audit and says her team is taking additional steps to better secure elections and results.

Jackie Beaudry: We already participate in the state.  For several years now, we've done what the state officials were talking about, a process audit to make sure that everything that is required in preperation was done and correctly.  And then we also satrted participating in individual races, one precinct has randomly been selected for an actual recount to ensure that the totals were accurate. 

Ypsilanti City Clerk Andrew Hellenga says the audit was a good learning experience for him.

Andrew Hellenga: If I were to have a resident of this city come to me and ask me about this, I'll have the knowledge to explain to them, this is how the process works and this is how it was designed.  And basically really kind of being able to present that information in a way that our residents can understand it and see the usefulness of it.

Local clerks say that if you want to help improve the election process in your community, the best thing to do is get trained and become a poll worker.  The results of the audit revealed there's over a 99% chance the bond proposal was approved by voters.  A similar audit will be conducted next week in Marquette County.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu