By Patrick Colbeck
The management of elections in a state involve many different roles. The official overview of the Michigan Election Process can be found at the Michigan Department of State website.
In Michigan, there are 4,755 precincts, 1,302 municipalities and 83 counties. A lot of effort goes into processing election returns across each of these jurisdictions.
When it comes to the certification of elections, the key roles defined by the state of Michigan are:
- Municipal Canvassing Boards
- County Canvassing Boards
- State Canvassing Boards
Conspicuously absent from their list of certification authorities are poll inspectors. Poll inspectors sign off on the precinct-specific election records such as the statement of votes for that precinct. Precinct-level results are the fundamental building blocks for all of the other certification steps. If the precincts produce accurate results as the product of a lawful election process, the job of the canvassing boards cited above becomes simply a matter of summing up election results and ballot counts based upon this precinct data.
The purpose of this certification process is to ensure that the tabulation and poll book records are consistent. A summary of this process is captured in the figure below:
Certifications are performed in a progression from the lowest common denominator jurisdiction referred to as a voting precinct all the way up to the statewide results. Each jurisdiction level hands of the certification duties to next higher level until the results for all ballot measures have been certified.
- Poll inspectors sign off on precinct results
- Municipal election boards sign off on municipal results
- County election boards sign off on county results
- State election boards sign off on state results
The fundamental process of canvassing is not complicated.
- Ensure that vote tallies for a given jurisdiction reflects the sum of the applicable tabulator tallies
- Ensure that the number of scanned ballots for a given jurisdiction reflects the sum of the scanned ballot count for the applicable tabulator ballot counts
- Ensure that the number of ballots issued for a given jurisdiction reflects the sum of ballots issued according to poll book records
- Ensure that the number of ballots issued per the poll book records equals the number of ballots scanned
What does tend to complicate matters is when precincts are separated into in-person ballots/voters and absentee ballots/voters by the creation of what are called Absentee Voter Counting Boards (AVCB). The creation of AVCBs results in the creation of multiple instances of poll books and multiple vote tabulators often located in separate buildings. Theoretically, this should not be complicated. It simply creates another subdivision of election jurisdictions below the precinct. In practice, however, it does tend to lead to unnecessary complications such as the following:
- What happens if not all ballots issued have been received in order to be scanned?
- What happens when a single AVCB tabulator scans ballots for multiple precincts with unique ballot styles?
- How do observers know what the precinct-specific election results are if the AVCB tabulator cannot print out precinct-specific results until the results are sent to another computer for printing?
- What happens when a voter attempts to vote in-person but the poll book says they have already voted absentee?
- What happens if the AVCB never counts a ballot received by someone who changes their mind and decides to vote in-person?
- What happens if both the AVCB and the in-person poll workers allow a vote to be cast for the same individual?
- What happens when the AVCB does not provide observers with precinct-specific results at the end of election night?
In light of these issues, the creation of AVCB’s can take what is fundamentally a simple process and make it much more complicated and much more vulnerable to election fraud. In light of the fact that all precincts in Michigan are capped at 2,999 registered voters, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to sacrifice the integrity of our elections and create AVCB’s under the false pretense of efficiency. If a given precinct is unable to handle the workload of processing the ballots for all of the voters in their precinct be they in-person or mail-in then perhaps the number of registered voters per precinct should be lowered to align with the capacity of election night operations.
The precinct-based election records are the basic building blocks of a transparent and effective election system. If precinct election records are consistent and transparent, it helps to expedite canvassing processes and the certifications of results. If precinct election records are complicated by the introduction of AVCB’s that span multiple precincts, canvasser duties become more labor-intensive. The introduction of AVCB’s introduces the need for an audit trail that differentiates between precinct-specific in-persona and absentee votes. Without such an audit trail to give us confidence in the precinct-specific results, we can have no confidence in the overall election results.
Precinct election records are the fundamental building blocks of any credible election certification process. If the electorate does not have confidence in the integrity of precinct-level results, they will not have confidence in the overall results for any ballot measure. In this light, transparent access to the following information on election night is critical to ensuring public confidence in the certified results of any election:
- Tabulator-specific election results by precinct
- Number of in-person ballots cast
- Number of absentee ballots cast
We live in an era where our elections are executed on highly networked electronic voting systems that effectively centralize management of our election records. Precinct records with election night timestamps mitigate the risk of the subversion of this centralized system to push fraudulent election outcomes.
So while the majority of people on election night tend to focus upon statewide election results, don’t forget that these results all depend upon the integrity of precinct results. Ultimately, the certification of the statewide election results depends upon the integrity of these precinct results.