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Judge shoots down challenge to Detroit absentee vote count

Detroit city clerk Janice Winfrey
Michigan Municipal League
Detroit city clerk Janice Winfrey

A Wayne County judge has thrown out a lawsuit against Detroit city clerk Janice Winfrey, saying there’s “no evidence” her office mishandled absentee ballots or violated state law in last week’s general election.

The lawsuitwas brought by election challengers who said Winfrey’s office used copies of absentee vote envelopes, rather than original envelopes with ballots, to verify voter information for about 1200 absentee votes dropped off at the clerk’s office on Election Day.

The plaintiffs said that violated the state manual for elections officials, as well as state law.

They worried that conducting the verification process for absentee votes—which involves matching signatures on returned ballots with ballot applications, and checking the voter’s name against precinct records and the state’s Qualified Voter File—entirely behind closed doors opened the process up to potential fraud.

The plaintiffs asked the court to disqualify all absentee ballots from the vote count, claiming it’s now impossible to determine which ballots were verified using copies and which weren’t.

But in arguments before Judge Robert Colombo on Friday, city of Detroit lawyer James Noseda, arguing on Winfrey’s behalf, called suggestions of fraud “outrageous.”

“There’s just no basis for this challenge, nothing of substance to address,” he said. Noseda told the court that Winfrey’s office verified absentee voter information themselves before sending ballots onto Cobo Center for counting.

Daniel Baxter, Detroit’s director of elections, said the clerk’s office followed the same procedure in this year’s primary election and found it sped up the vote-counting process. That helped “to ensure what happened in 2016 [Detroit general election] never occurs again, in terms of the delayed result reporting from the absentee voting counting boards,” he said.

Colombo ruled that was appropriate. He said that state election law gives clerks leeway to create “processing steps tailored to administrative needs,” and the plaintiffs provided “no evidence” that fraud had actually occurred.

Given that lack of evidence, Colombo balked at the idea at throwing out up to 30,000 absentee votes, possibly changing the results of several races. That would amount to voter disenfranchisement and  “harm to the public,” Colombo said.

But Sherry Wells, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Friday’s hearing raised as many questions as it answered. Wells said it's still not clear to her how using copies sped up the counting process, and how that didn’t violate state guidelines.

“The [Michigan] Secretary of State’s instructions are not clear,” Wells said. “When [the judge] says this is optional for absentee ballot counting boards, and the whole thing goes into what the process is supposed to be… how can it be optional? It’s strange.”

Wells also reiterated concerns about how much of the absentee ballot process takes place out of sight of election challengers. “How can you get evidence [of fraud] if you’re not allowed to get evidence?” she said.

Winfrey narrowly won re-election as clerk over challenger Garlin Gilchrist II by about 1400 votes. Gilchrist led the returns for most of election night, but Winfrey pulled ahead with a late surge by claiming almost two-thirds of the absentee.

Gilchrist has publicly mulled requesting a recount based on anecdotal evidence of absentee vote irregularities. As of Friday, his campaign said it was still considering the issue.

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers has yet to certify Detroit’s election returns. The board is scheduled to meet Tuesday, the state deadline for certification. Gilchrist then has a week to petition for a recount, which he must pay for.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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