Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, speaks at to reporters about the vote recount efforts she’s leading, in New York, December 5, 2016. In Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Stein called the process is a “political horror show,” saying that “the recount itself is not accurate, secure and just, and it reflects that we have a voting system that is seriously flawed.” (Photo: Sam Hodgson / The New York Times)
Michigan officials declared in late November that Trump won the state’s count by 10,704 votes. But hold on — a record 75,355 ballots were not counted.
The uncounted ballots came mostly from Detroit and Flint, majority-Black cities that vote Democratic.
According to the machines that read their ballots, these voters waited in line, sometimes for hours, yet did not choose a president. Really?
This week, I drove through a snowstorm to Lansing to hear the official explanation from Ruth Johnson, the Republican secretary of state. I was directed to official flack-catcher Fred Woodhams who told me, “You know, I think when you look at the unfavorability ratings that were reported for both major-party candidates, it’s probably not that surprising.”
Sleuthing about in Detroit, I found another explanation: bubbles.
Michigan votes on paper ballots. If you don’t fill the bubble completely, the machine records that you didn’t vote for president.
Photo of Michigan ballot with bubble. (Image courtesy of Palast Investigative Fund, 2016)
Susan, a systems analyst who took part in the hand recount initiated by Jill Stein, told me, “I saw a lot of red ink. I saw a lot of checkmarks. We saw a lot of ballots that weren’t originally counted, because those don’t scan into the machine.” (I can only use her first name because she’s terrified of retribution from Trump followers in the white suburb where she lives.)
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Other ballots were not counted because the machines thought the voter chose two presidential candidates.
How come more ballots were uncounted in Detroit and Flint than in the white ‘burbs and rural counties? Are the machines themselves racist?
No, but they are old, and in some cases, busted. An astonishing 87 machines broke down in Detroit, responsible for counting tens of thousands of ballots. Many more were simply faulty and uncalibrated.
I met with Carlos Garcia, University of Michigan multimedia specialist, who, on Election Day, joined a crowd waiting over two hours for the busted machine to be fixed.
Some voters left; others filled out ballots that were chucked, uncounted, into the bottom of machine. When the machine was fixed, Carlos explained, “Any new scanned ballots were falling in on top of the old ones.” It would not be possible to recount those dumped ballots.
This is not an unheard of phenomenon: I know two voters who lost their vote in another state (California) because they didn’t fill in the bubble — my parents! Meet mom and dad in my film, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy:
How did Detroit end up with the crap machines?
Detroit is bankrupt, so every expenditure must be approved by “emergency” overlords appointed by the Republican governor. The GOP operatives refused the city’s pre-election pleas to fix and replace the busted machines.
“We had the rollout [of new machines] in our budget,” Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said. “No money was appropriated by the state.”
Same in Flint. GOP state officials cut the budget for water service there, resulting in the contamination of the city’s water supply with lead. The budget cuts also poisoned the presidential race.
The Human Eye Count
There is, however, an extraordinary machine that can read the ballots, whether the bubbles are filled or checked, whether in black ink or red, to determine the voters’ intent: the human eye.
That’s why Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, paid millions of dollars for a human eyeball count of the uncounted votes. While labeled a “recount,” its real purpose is to count the 75,355 votes never counted in the first place.
Count those ballots, mostly in Detroit and Flint, and Trump’s victory could vanish.
Adding to the pile of uncounted ballots are the large numbers of invalidated straight-ticket votes in Detroit. In Michigan, you can choose to make one mark that casts your vote for every Democrat (or Republican) for every office. Voters know that they can vote the Democratic ballot but write in a protest name — popular were “Bernie Sanders” and “Mickey Mouse” — but their ballot, they knew, would count for Clinton.
However, the Detroit machines simply invalidated the ballots with protest write-ins because the old Opti-Scans wrongly tallied these as “over-votes” (i.e., voting for two candidates). The human eye would catch this mistake.
But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette stymied Stein’s human eye count. The Republican pol issued an order saying that no one could look at the ballots cast in precincts where the number of votes and voters did not match — exactly the places where you’d want to look for the missing votes. He also ordered a ban on counting ballots from precincts where the seals on the machines had been broken — in other words, where there is evidence of tampering. Again, those are the machines that most need investigating. The result: The recount crews were denied access to more than half of all Detroit precincts (59 percent).
I met with Stein, who told me she was stunned by this overt sabotage of the recount. “It’s shocking to think that the discounting of these votes may be making the critical difference in the outcome of the election,” she said.
This story was repeated in Wisconsin, which uses the same Opti-Scan system as Michigan. There, the uncounted votes, sometimes called “spoiled” or “invalidated” ballots, were concentrated in Black-majority Milwaukee. Stein put up over $3 million of donated funds for the human eye review in Wisconsin, but GOP state officials authorized Milwaukee County to recount simply by running the ballots through the same blind machines. Not surprisingly, this instant replay produced the same questionable result.
Adding Un-Votes to the Uncounted
Stein was also disturbed by the number of voters who never got to cast ballots. “Whether it’s because of the chaos [because] some polling centers are closed, and then some are moved, and there’s all kinds of mix-ups,” she said. “So, a lot of people are filling out provisional ballots, or they were being tossed off the voter rolls by Interstate Crosscheck.”
Interstate Crosscheck is a list that was created by Donald Trump supporter and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to hunt down and imprison voters who illegally voted or registered in two states in one election.
An eye-popping 499,092 Michiganders are on the Crosscheck suspect list. The list, which my team uncovered in an investigation for Rolling Stone, cost approximately 50,000 of the state’s voters their registrations. Disproportionately, the purged voters were Blacks, Latinos and that other solid Democratic demographic, Muslim Americans. (Dearborn, Michigan, has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the US.)
The Michigan Secretary of State’s spokesman Woodhams told me the purpose of the mass purge was, “to clean our voter lists and ensure that there’s no vulnerability for fraud. We’ve been very aggressive in closing vulnerabilities and loopholes to fraud.”
While Woodhams did not know of a single conviction for double-voting in Michigan, the “aggression” in purging the lists was clear. I showed him part of the Michigan purge list that he thought was confidential. The “double voters” are found by simply matching first and last names. Michael Bernard Brown is supposed to be the same voter as Michael Anthony Brown. Michael Timothy Brown is supposed to be the same voter as Michael Johnnie Brown.
Woodhams assured me the GOP used the Trump-Kobach list with care, more or less. He said, “I’m sure that there are some false positives. But we go through it thoroughly, and we’re not just canceling people.”
As to the racial profiling inherent in the list? Did he agree with our experts that by tagging thousands of voters named Jose Garcia and Michael Brown there would be a bias in his purge list?
The GOP spokesman replied, “I’ve known a lot of white Browns.”
Jill Stein didn’t buy it. Responding to both Michigan’s and Trump’s claim that voter rolls are loaded with fraudulent double voters, Stein said, “It’s the opposite of what he is saying: not people who are voting fraudulently and illegally, but actually legitimate voters who have had their right to vote taken away from them by Kris Kobach and by Donald Trump.”
Crosscheck likely cost tens of thousands their vote in Pennsylvania as well.
“It is a Jim Crow system, and it all needs to be fixed,” Stein concluded. “It’s not rocket science. This is just plain, basic democracy.”
Greg Palast’s new film, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: a Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, based on the his best-selling book about Donald Trump and vote suppression, was released in September. The book and film are available at Amazon.com.