A pair of investigations into the shortage of precinct ballots available to Oakland County voters in the final hours of the Tuesday, August 7, primary election should tell us what we already know: the Oakland County Clerk's Office was responsible for the lack of adequate ballot numbers.
More than 27 local municipal clerks in Oakland County signed a statement apologizing to voters who experienced difficulties voting during the election, including clerks from Bloomfield Township, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester Hills and Rochester. The statement places the blame at the feet of Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown.
Reports of ballot shortages in several Oakland County communities started circulating hours before polls were closed at 8 p.m. on election day, with clerks telling Downtown newsmagazine that precincts had come close to running out or had completely run out of ballots. Those who experienced problems had to use altered test ballots, request additional ballots from the county or have voters use machines intended for ADA voting and print their own ballots.
Brown said her office has launched an internal investigation. However, in responses to the claims against her and her office, she said the office "went above and beyond" what is required by law, while blaming higher than expected voter turnout, ballots spoiled by improper voting, and an unfounded claim that some clerks were withholding ballots while crowds demanded to vote.
However, it was voter turnout – more than 34 percent across Oakland County – that was higher than expected for the county clerk's office.
Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton said that city saw over 36 percent turnout. Some precincts had nearly 45 percent, with an overall increase of 14 percent from the last gubernatorial primary and five percent higher than that of eight years earlier. The countywide turnout for the non-presidential year primary in 2014 was 20.61 percent of registered voters.
"We don't have a crystal ball," Brown said. "We ordered more than the our statutory requirement.”
While the county may not have a crystal ball, they have something more realistic and accurate: absentee ballots. With a 60 percent increase in absentee ballots cast prior to primary day, local clerks saw an early indicator that additional ballots were needed, and requested more from the clerk's office.
Barton said she sent her first email to the county on May 31 informing the clerk's office that their formula for issuing ballots wasn't going to be accurate. By mid-July, the city began witnessing a shortage of absentee ballots, forcing them to issue precinct ballots for absentee voting.
"We knew we were seeing incredible numbers," she said.
Yet requests from Barton, Bloomfield Township's Jan Roncelli and other clerks throughout the county for additional ballots weren't granted.
"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," local clerks said in their statement. Brown confirmed her office did receive some requests for additional ballots.
Brown said her internal investigation will include looking into emails received by Oakland County Clerk Director of Elections Joe Rozell from municipal clerks.
The Oakland Board of Commissioners also launched a bi-partisan investigation looking into what occurred.
While the investigations may help to show specifics of where mistakes were made in preparing for the primary, we are swayed by the statement of nearly 30 local clerks who say the county miscalculated on the number of ballots needed – and requests from clerks were dismissed.
We also find Brown's arguments for the shortages, and fixes she claims local clerks should have used, to be unacceptable – and a dodge of accountability.
Brown suggested clerks could have solved the ballot shortages by using ADA-compliant machines to allow voters to print ballots. While each precinct location is required to have such a machine, many precincts share one location, meaning several thousand voters would have needed to share one such machine, which is slower than regular machines. This is an inappropriate response from the clerk responsible for ensuring all registered voters have a chance to cast a ballot.
Further, we find it hard to swallow Brown's claims that local clerks would have turned away voters while still holding ballots at the precincts. Rather, clerks Downtown spoke with while polling was still open indicated that voters wouldn't be turned away, ensuring all who showed up by 8 p.m. would be permitted to vote.
This was not an effort at voter disenfranchisement, but poor planning.
Fortunately this unfortunate situation won’t be repeated in the November general election – state election law requires the county to print ballots to cover all registered voters.
But we recommend the county clerk's office, and Brown in particular, use her energy to ensure proper voting, rather than blame shifting, in preparation for future elections.