Is Oakland County Ready for Election Day?

According to a report put out by Oakland County’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Election Infrastructure, 75 of 516 precincts in the county ran out of ballots at some point during the primary election. That’s 14% of precincts.

 What happened? And is the county going to be ready for the general election on November 6th? WDET’s Pat Batcheller sat down with reporter Laura Herberg to get some answers.

Click on the audio player above to hear the conversation.

The Scene on August 7, 2018

Farmington Hills Clerk Pam Smith remembers when she first found out ballots were dwindling in some of her city’s precincts.

We started getting calls in the early afternoon that they were running low,” says Smith. “[The county] said to make sure that we used all of our extra supply of absentee ballots that we had and to start using any remaining test ballots that we had, before they would start printing.  That was our contingency plan, that they would print on the spot at the county level. So, we did that. We started sending out our ballots but it proved not to be enough at all.”

Smith says her team ended up fighting rush hour traffic to drive to Pontiac to pick up emergency ballots printed by the county clerk, while voters stood in line waiting to vote. This happened, not just in Farmington Hills, but in cities across the county. Ferndale, Southfield, Pontiac, Farmington, Oak Park, Novi, Berkley, Madison Heights, Commerce Township, Wolverine Lake, Bloomfield Township and Troy all requested emergency ballots, according to the Oakland Press. Anyone in line before 8 p.m. was able to vote, but it’s hard to say how many people couldn’t hang around in line.

The ballot shortages were covered by several media outlets including WXYZ, Local 4, The Oakland Press, The Detroit Free Press, and The Detroit News.

How in the World Did this Happen? 

First of all, this wasn’t completely unprecedented. Precincts in Michigan have run out of ballots before. It happened during the 2016 presidential primaries in Lincoln and St. Joseph townships, in the 2012 general election in Clinton Township and during the 2010 primaries in Columbus Township, just to cite a few recent examples reported in newspaper articles.

What was unique in Oakland County was the scale of the shortages. Massive voter turnout, no rules that say every voter has to have a ballot waiting for them, and the high rate of “spoiled” ballots during primaries created a recipe for disaster for the county. Let’s break it out:

Big Voter Turnout

Oakland County has never had more voters during a primary election than it did on August 7. We’re talking a record-breaking number of voters. Precincts in Novi, Huntington Woods, Pleasant Ridge, Ferndale, Bloomfield Township, Southfield, Lake Angelus, and Lathrup Village saw more than half of their registered voters turn out. Countywide, 34 percent of registered voters cast ballots. In the 2010 August primary, 27 percent of registered voters went to the polls.

In August of this year, the high voter turnout spiked in some unpredictable ways. Several cities experienced significant voter turnout increases over what they experienced in 2010, according to the county’s report. Below is a list of the municipalities with the largest turnout percentage increases compared to the 2010 primary:

Ferndale  22%
Lathrup Village  18%
Pleasant Ridge  17%
City of Southfield  13%
Novi Township  12%

Not All Registered Voters Get a Printed Ballot

State election law does not actually require counties to print ballots for every voter during the primaries. This is because these elections usually generate low turnout. Instead, Michigan mandates counties to print out at least 25 percent more ballots than the last, similar primary.  

In Oakland County, officials at the Elections Division say they looked at 2010 – the last primary with a governor’s race with no incumbents. They took the turnout for that year – 27 percent — added a quarter more ballots as required by state law, and then  padded that number with additional ballots. But as we now know, it wasn’t enough.

Ballots Got Spoiled

Voting in the primaries is weird. If you vote for a Republican and a Libertarian, then you ruin your ballot. That’s because in Michigan’s primaries, residents can only vote for one party on the ballot. Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown says a high rate of mistakes like this contributed to the lack of ballots. According to the clerk, just 1-2% of ballots are typically spoiled. In the August primary election, however, the clerk says some precincts saw as many as 22% of the ballots being ruined.

Related WDET Coverage: This is A Drill: Poll Worker Training in Detroit

How Can We Make Sure This Doesn’t Happen Again?

The report by Oakland County’s Ad-Hoc Election Committee made some recommendations. Here are some highlights:

  • Have enough money to print ballots for every registered voter.
  • Make absentee ballot voting data from the Secretary of State available to county clerks so they can more accurately predict turnout.
  • Fund a marketing campaign to teach voters how to correctly vote in the primaries.
  • Create an Election Day operations center in the southern part of the county that could print and supply ballots to nearby precincts in the event of a shortage.
  • Create a grant program to recruit new, potentially younger, Election Day workers.
  • Offer more training for existing Election Day workers.

Have these Recommendations Been Implemented?

Oakland County’s Finance Committee added funding for these recommendations to the budget at the end of last month. Additionally, two Oakland County Commissioners who sat on the Ad-Hoc Committee on Election Infrastructure, Tom Berman (R) and Nancy Quarles (D), have introduced resolutions asking the state legislature to ask the Secretary of State to provide county clerks access to the absentee voter system and to restore the party logos on the ballot, which they believe will reduce ballot spoilage.

What Will Happen in the General Election?

Unlike the primaries, state law already mandates that ballots be printed for every single registered voter in the general election. So, in theory, ballot supplies shouldn’t be an issue on November 6th. But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a smooth Election Day. The power could go out at some precincts like it did in Detroit last August. Or voters could get turned away over confusion regarding the state’s ID rules (you don’t have to have your state ID with you to vote, but things will go smoother if you do). Then there’s always the risk of long lines. Farmington Hills Clerk Pam Smith says her team is bracing themselves for high voter turnout.

We are treating this like it’s presidential. We’re going to have enough voting booths and enough workers like we would plan for a presidential-sized election,” says Smith.

She recommends that voters do their homework and come to the polls knowing how they’re going to vote. And she wants to remind people that straight-party ticket voting will not be allowed, so they should expect to fill in a bubble next to every single candidate they would like to see elected.


Image credit: WDET/Laura Herberg

This post is a part of 2018 Elections in Michigan.

On November 6, Michigan voters will decide who will be the state's new governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Some state House and Senate seats are up for grabs, and numerous initiatives are expected on ballots.

WDET is committed to providing honest, fair, inclusive coverage of Michigan's 2018 elections. Join us now and all the way to the voting booth to be an informed voter.


About the Author

Pat Batcheller

Senior News Editor & WDET Host, Morning Edition

Hi, I’m Pat Batcheller, your host for WDET’s Morning Edition. I bring you the news, weather, traffic, and information to help you start your weekday.   Follow @patbwdet

Laura Herberg

Community Reporter

Through sound-rich storytelling, Herberg covers stories about the people inhabiting the metro Detroit region and the issues that affect them. Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter 2018 and 2017.

Follow @HerbergRadio

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