Votes and doubts

Jan 6, 2010 at 12:00 am

News Hits isn't exactly ready to jump down the rabbit hole Tom Barrow wants to lead us all into, but we're interested enough to peer over the edge of it and look into the depths of how elections are conducted in Detroit.

The question is: Will any of the many officials Barrow wrote last week to request that they formally investigate the handling of the Nov. 3, 2009 Detroit mayoral election decide to look into the matter?

Detroit election officials admit some human error occurred during the election, but say such errors are par for the course. However, they say allegations of a criminal conspiracy are completely unfounded.

Soon after the polls closed on Election Day, as we well know, Dave Bing was declared the winner, with a nearly 20,000-vote margin. Capturing 70,060 of the Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey agrees, saying that many of Barrow's numerous complaints amount to little more than "clerical" issues.

Barrow, who insisted before the election that internal polling conducted by his campaign showed that voters were leaning toward him, exercised his right to have a recount conducted. At the end, Bing was still declared the winner.

Some lambasted Barrow for having laid the cost of a recount on a desperately cash-strapped city. In a Dec. 20 op-ed piece for the Detroit Free Press, Winfrey skewered the losing candidate, making note of the fact that he also demanded a recount after losing to Coleman Young in 1989.

Saying that Barrow failed to prove his "hypothesis" that he really defeated Young 20 years ago, she went on to observe that "... this time, if he does succeed in anything, it will be costing a cash-strapped city and taxpayers at least $170,000 to soothe a two-time bruised ego."

Using Barrow as an example, Winfrey made the case that state legislators, to prevent frivolous challenges, should consider raising the $10-per-precinct fee candidates must pay for to have a recount conducted. Then she concluded by taking another swipe at Barrow, saying, "He should accept his fate, swallow his pride and allow Detroit to move forward."

Bing's office had a similar reaction when asked Monday to comment on Barrow's attempt to have the election formally investigated.

"At a time when this administration is focused on moving forward, it is unfortunate that Mr. Barrow continues to challenge a vote that has been counted, recounted and certified twice," Karen Dumas, Bing's director of communications, wrote in an e-mail Monday. "This is not the time for pursuing political points for personal reinforcement. It's a new year, and time to move on."

Through the campaign, Barrow reminded voters that he's a relative of Detroit boxer Joe Louis. Barrow would be a fighter for the people, he promised. Now, it's as if Barrow has been knocked out, and the referee has counted to 10, but he's still refusing to leave the ring.

Here is one thing that Barrow's persistence has brought to light: In an election where fewer than 130,000 votes were cast, when Barrow officially challenged the results, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers ruled that nearly 50,000 ballots couldn't be recounted because they were considered, in one way or another, to be spoiled.

A lot of times that is due to discrepancies, such as the number of ballots in a box not matching the number of voters listed in a precinct's poll book.

According to election law, however, in such cases, the ballots aren't thrown out. Instead, the original vote tally stands. And that's as it should be, says Vince Keenan, founder of a Detroit nonprofit designed to assist voters. What counts most is that voters get the person they cast their ballot for, and minor mistakes should not prevent that.

"Elections are a human institution," he noted in an e-mail to News Hits. And where humans are involved, mistakes will inevitably happen.

What Barrow's claiming is that what he discovered in challenging the election results can't be attributed to just human error.

Asserting that "probable cause exists" to believe that a criminal conspiracy involving "vote tampering, ballot box stuffing and electronic vote manipulation" occurred, Barrow has asked authorities at every level to investigate. Among those sent the complaint were state Attorney General Mike Cox, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Among the most interesting problems alleged by Barrow, one involves the transfer cases used to hold absentee ballots. Those cases have two entry points — one on the top and one at the bottom. To protect against vote tampering, each of those entry points is sealed with a numbered tag, and those tags are recorded in a poll book.

If the tags don't match recorded numbers, then the ballots can't be recounted. Human error could explain occasional discrepancies, but in his complaint Barrow describes a situation that goes beyond that.

When the first transfer case was rolled out for the recount, Barrow says that he noticed the election officials in charge made sure the top seal number matched what was in the poll book, but that no one looked at the bottom seal number.

When Barrow pressed to have the bottom seals inspected, he claims, he was told by a Wayne County election official that "we never look at the bottom seal in a recount and are not about to start now just for you."

He goes on to describe getting down on his hands and knees himself to check, and then looking over a worker's shoulder to see if it matched the number in the poll book. It didn't.

"Case after case was brought out with [Barrow] on his knees noting most of the seals did not agree with the poll book," Barrow alleges.

The end result was that the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, which conducted the recount, ruled that none of the approximately 40,000 absentee ballots cast in the election would be included in that recount.

There are other allegations as well. Among them is the claim that, on Election Day, three members of a small, loose-knit group of election monitors calling themselves Citizens for Fair Elections — a group that one of its members says includes both Bing and Barrow supporters — saw "numerous individuals with larges bags and backpacks entering and remaining in the absentee counting station area."

There are other points of intrigue outlined in Barrow's complaint. He says that, while the recount was under way, an election official initially admitted before a group of 30 people, and then later recanted that a security guard had allowed two "strangers" to take an unauthorized "tour" of the building after hours, including allowing them into the "secure" area where ballot boxes were being stored.

Daniel Baxter, director of the Detroit Department of Elections, says that human error will always be a factor when it comes to elections. As he tells News Hits: "One thing that can't be avoided in terms of election operations is the human element and errors."

The best that can be done is to try to keep those errors to a minimum, and to correct potential problems. To that end, he says, his office intends to replace the transfer cases with both top and bottom entry points with containers having just one entry point so that the snafu that Barrow discovered won't be a problem again.

And, although he allows that Barrow is within his rights to call for a criminal investigation, there is no real basis for the charges being leveled.

"I don't know of any criminal conspiracy to steal elections from him or any other candidate," says Baxter. "This election was administered with integrity according to rules and elections law."

The way Barrow sees it, in any election where 40 percent off the vote can't be recounted because of problems with the way ballots were handled, something is drastically amiss.

"It is clear that something is wrong," he says. "Something is going on, but it is being ignored. And as long as it is ignored, it will continue to go on. I know I'm going to take my hits for pursuing this. But this is bigger than me. It is about the integrity of the election process."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]