No count recount

Sep 21, 2005 at 12:00 am

Maureen Taylor’s frustrations boiled over into anger.  Monday, inside a cramped meeting room at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers were reviewing and certifying the results of a vote recount from Detroit’s August primary.

Taylor, a longtime welfare rights activist who ran for City Council but failed to finish among the top 18 candidates qualifying for the November general election, had asked for a recount in 46 of 100 districts in the city where absentee ballots are collected and counted. The problem Taylor and others ran into during the recount that took place in the basement of Cobo Center the previous two weeks was that most of the ballots she wanted to examine couldn’t be recounted. Here’s why:

To ensure the integrity of the vote, once ballots are counted immediately after the election, they’re put in a box and sealed with a numbered tag. That tag’s number is recorded in a poll book. If, during a recount, it’s found that the seal number on a box doesn’t match what’s supposed to be the corresponding number in the poll book, Michigan law says the votes in that box cannot be recounted.

Likewise, if the actual number of ballots in a box does not correspond to the number recorded in the poll book, none of the votes in that box can be recounted.

Consequently, votes in 29 of the 46 boxes Taylor asked to be recounted couldn’t be — more than 14,000 ballots in all, Taylor says.

When such tainted ballots can’t be recounted, the original count stands.

The question that wasn’t answered: Were those ballots tainted as a result of incompetence or deliberate fraud?

An exasperated Taylor asked the Board of Canvassers what it could do. She was told the board has no authority over Detroit City Clerk Jackie Currie, the city’s chief elections officer. The best it could do was to write Currie’s office and suggest improvements — something the board has done often in the past, with little result.

“I wish this board could do something and make Detroit do what it is supposed to do,” Board Chair Alyce Smith told Taylor in a frequently contentious meeting. “It’s been that way for years.”

During a break Taylor lashed out at one of the board members. “If all people did to stop lynchings was write letters,” she said, “bodies would still be hanging from trees.”

This is only the latest controversy involving Currie, who got a majority of the votes cast in the primary and will attempt to win her fourth term in office in the general election.

In August, Taylor filed a lawsuit questioning the validity of the primary results for the council race. Key to her complaint is the contention that Detroit’s voter rolls are packed with “persons either dead, no longer residents, no longer citizens or otherwise disqualified as electors in the City of Detroit.”

Her concern is that it’s possible a significant number of votes are being cast using the names of those ineligible voters, and that absentee ballots are the vehicle being used to do that.

Part of the problem, Taylor claims, is that Currie’s office sent out about 150,000 absentee voter applications before the election — even though only about 40,000 absentee ballots actually were filed. Taylor also contended that Currie violated state law by sending those applications en masse instead of responding only to voters who request them.

Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, says Currie is not alone in sending out unsolicited absentee voter applications. It’s not unusual, she says, for election officials to send applications to voters over age 60, or to disabled voters. “What we look for is consistency and fairness,” Chesney says.

However, Chief Wayne County Circuit Judge Mary Beth Kelly ruled earlier this month that sending out unsolicited absentee applications violates state law, and issued an injunction to stop Currie from making another mass mailing for the November general election.

Steve Wassinger, Taylor’s lawyer, says Currie disregarded the judge’s order and sent out a mass of unsolicited absentee applications anyway. Currie did not respond to calls from Metro Times seeking comment.

Currie also tried to have the case moved to federal court. U.S. Judge Robert Cleland considered Currie’s request and decided the issue should stay in Wayne County Circuit Court.

Questions were also raised about the propriety of Currie jettisoning the city’s lawyers and bringing in outside counsel. And Taylor’s lawyer will be asking Judge Kelly to find Currie in contempt for sending out those absentee ballot applications in violation of the court order.

Joyce Moore, who ran for city clerk against Currie, has petitioned Gov. Jennifer Granholm to remove Currie from office on the grounds that she illegally mailed out absentee ballot applications before the primary election and then ignored Kelly’s injunction by sending out a mass mailing for the general election.

Currie received a show of support last week when Detroit City Council passed a resolution declaring that Currie was wrongly being singled out for conducting such mailings, and disputing Judge Kelly’s interpretation of the law.

The big issue, though, remains the integrity of Detroit’s vote. The fact that a recount can be derailed by a mishandling of ballots troubles D. Etta Wilcoxon, another City Council candidate who didn’t make it past the primary. Wilcoxon sought a recount in 61 precincts; as of Monday she still didn’t know how many could not be recounted because of problems similar to those identified among the absentee ballots.

But the problems with the absentee ballots were enough to convince her that the system had broken down. She suspects that the mishandling of ballots could be deliberate. “Anyone who wants to thwart a recount knows that this is the way to do it,” she says.

Before asking for a recount, Taylor says she expected to find some problems, but nothing to the extent experienced. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that 29 of the 46 [ballot boxes] would be uncountable,” she says. “It’s horrible.”

And she finds it mind-boggling that the final count for those tainted ballots is in the hands of the person most responsible for them being tainted in the first place — Currie.

“It’s like putting everything back in the hands of the fox,” Taylor says.

Undeterred, she plans to go back to Judge Kelly. Along with seeking sanctions against Currie, she’ll also try to gain some sort of monitoring to ensure the accuracy of November’s vote.

In addition, she’s enlisted about 140 volunteers who are going door to door to see if the names on absentee ballot lists match up with the names of people living at the addresses they are being sent to.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]