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  • By Lisa Brody

County clerk taking heat for ballot shortages

A group of Oakland County municipal clerks issued a statement of apology on Thursday, August 9, for the difficulty many voters experienced on Tuesday, August 7, in the primary election due to a shortage of ballots in several precincts, while making it clear that the office of Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown was completely at fault.

Their statement, in part, read: “We, the city and township clerks of Oakland County, extend our sincerest apologies to all the voters in our municipalities who experienced difficulties in voting due to ballot shortages on August 7th… We could tell weeks before the election that our ballot orders would not be sufficient, however, we were not allowed to increase ballot quantities due to the fact that county clerks control ballot ordering for elections such as the August Primary. When the county did increase ballot quantities the week before the election, it was by a very small percentage and still not sufficient for most of our communities.”

Municipal clerks signing the letter included Bloomfield Township Clerk Jan Roncelli; Bloomfield Township Deputy Clerk Deena Mondock; Birmingham Clerk Cherilynn Mynsberge; Bloomfield Hills Clerk Amy Burton; Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Burton; Rochester Hills Deputy Clerk Leanne Scott, who is president of Oakland County Clerks Association; Rochester Clerk Lee Ann O'Connor; as well as Troy Clerk Aileen Dickson; West Bloomfield Clerk Debbie Binder; Pam Smith, clerk of Farmington Hills; and Cortney Hanson, clerk of Novi; plus several others.

On election evening, a number of municipalities reported ballot shortages at precincts in Bloomfield Township, Birmingham, West Bloomfield, Farmington, Farmington Hills, Rochester Hills, Ferndale and Pontiac, among other communities. David Wolkinson, Republican candidate in the 40th state House District, an eventual winner, said that Derby Middle School in Birmingham had well over an hour-and-a-half line when the polls closed at 8 p.m. because they had run out of ballots. While many people stayed to vote, he saw some people leave, stating they couldn't wait.

According to sources, Oakland County Clerk Director of Elections Joe Rozell provided each county municipality with considerably less of ballots than requested.. Local clerks said they have no control over how many ballots they are given.

Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton told Downtown on election night the city had multiple precincts that had run out of ballots, many within a half hour of polls scheduled to close. Despite the lack of ballots, she said,"No voter in Oakland County will be turned away," as they were able to vote using ADA machines, although that added to the time it took to vote.

"Multiple large municipalities have been texting me," she said. "There are numerous (municipalities) in Oakland County where there's not enough."

Barton said they were also able to copy ballots if they didn't have enough, but with the city being 36 square miles, it was difficult to get them all out in time.

"I have had four people out for three hours taking out additional ballots," she said.

“I have no control over how many ballots I'm given,” Bloomfield Township Clerk Jan Roncelli said. “The county allocated the ballots. However, this will never happen again.”

Barton said the number of ballots provided to each municipality was determined by the Oakland County Clerk's Office, and that requests for additional ballots prior to the election were denied, a request echoed by another local clerk. She stressed her frustration with the situation and noted that the shortage is not the fault of any local municipal clerks.

"I feel like none of this was necessary," she said. "If the Oakland County Clerk's Office would have ordered the number we requested, we wouldn't be in this situation."

County Clerk Lisa Brown and Rozell responded that they are equally as upset about the ballot shortages, and Brown said she is doing an internal investigation, including looking at emails Rozell received from clerks.

“We did do a supplemental order of ballots on July 31,” Brown said. “Some of the local clerks did contact our office saying they needed more.”

She said the clerk's office does not need an independent investigation from the Secretary of State, “because we didn't do anything wrong. We have a lot of laws which we have to follow in primaries. We went above and beyond.”

Rozell said the law told them to look at 2014 for a guide for turnout, and they went back to 2010, which previously had the highest primary turnout.

“We shattered records in Oakland County by seven points,” Rozell said. “There were individual precincts that shattered it by 70 percent. Some had three times their normal turnout for a normal primary. They had general election (level) turnouts.”

“We don't have a crystal ball. We ordered more than our statutory requirement,” Brown said. She did say in many precincts there was a much higher than expected amount of spoiled ballots, which may indicate poor voter instruction.

In their letter, the clerks responded to Brown attempting to direct part of the blame on local clerks..

“The County Clerk’s statement that local clerks could have solved the ballot shortages by sending larger paper to the precincts is not accurate. The machines attached to the printers have an important and specific purpose: to allow voters who request or require assistance to vote with necessary accommodations. These machines are not intended for mass production and the process of voting on the system takes five to eight minutes per ballot. That proposed solution would have only slightly lessened the impact. The only effective solution would have been a sufficient number of ballots.

“Additionally, the County Clerk’s assertion that local clerks were withholding ballots from precincts while crowds of voters demanded to vote is both disheartening and untrue. We want to assure all our voters that we did everything within our authority to make ballots available to all the precincts in our jurisdictions.”

Roncelli noted that, “There was heavy, heavy voting. The county never anticipated this kind of turnout.”

Municipal clerks had anticipated a heavier volume of voting based on an increase in requests for absentee ballots, and a higher than normal return of absentee ballots, both Roncelli and Barton said.

Voter turnout for the primary election was 34 percent in Oakland County. In 2014, the midterm primary election turnout was 20.61 percent countywide of registered voters; in 2016, the turnout countywide for the presidential primary was 19.96 percent of registered voters. For 2016, In Bloomfield Township, turnout was 31.87 percent; Birmingham 17.81 percent; Bloomfield Hills, 20.74 percent; Rochester Hills, 18.44 percent; and Rochester, 13.13 percent.

“Whether the solution is a change in law or a financial agreement with the county, we will make sure that we have the final say on ballot quantities for future elections. Please know that we will not rest until we know that the shortages that occurred on August 7th will not happen again,” the clerks stated.

Brown and Rozell said they are committed to ensuring it never happens again, as well.

“There's hurt on both sides, but I know that every clerk in this county is dedicated to running fair elections, don't want to disenfranchise any voter,” Brown said. “We have excellent municipal clerks. I am committed to working together with local clerks.”

As for November's general election?

“We are required to print a ballot for every registered voter, for 100 percent,” Brown said.

Oakland County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Gingell has launched a bipartisan investigation looking into what occurred, and how it can be rectified before the November general election. Commissioners Marcia Gershenson (D-Bloomfield Township) and Adam Kochenderfer (R-Rochester Hills) are joining chairs Tom J. Berman (R-Keego Harbor) and Nancy Quarles (D-Southfield) to examine election infrastructure, seek public input and make recommendations for improvements.

“I am pleased to have been appointed to serve as co-chair of this ad hoc committee, which represents a bi-partisan effort to study Oakland County’s election system infrastructure,” said Berman. “The poor execution and challenges voters faced at the polls on Tuesday are inexcusable. I’m determined to thoroughly investigate the issues that arose, and to identify and implement solutions to ensure this ballot debacle never happens again.”

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