Misleading posts about signatures and ‘big bags’ on Detroit ballot counting site

COMPLAINT: At the Huntington Place ballot counting site in Detroit after the Aug. 2 election, at least 50% of ballots lacked proof of signature verification, and large bags and coolers under tables caused a problem of security.

AP ASSESSMENT: False. According to Daniel Baxter, an election administrator for the city of Detroit, all ballots counted at the facility had gone through the signature review process. The bags and coolers contained food and personal items for election workers who were unable to leave during the counting of ballots, Baxter said. All workers are security checked and constantly monitored during the counting process.

THE FACTS: A Detroit convention center that doubled as a ballot counting site became the hub of election lies in November 2020 when social media users asserted without foundation that the legal ballots brought there in the middle of the night were fraudulent.

After August 2 from Michigan primary election this week, similar claims online about the facility came back with a vengeance. Social media posts and conservative blog posts have distorted what poll watchers, or volunteers allowed to observe the counting processsupposedly seen at the Huntington Place ballot counting site, formerly known as the TCF Center.

The messages reported that Republican poll watchers, sometimes called poll protesters, observing the counting process “wondered why at least 50% of the ballots were not certified that they had been checked for signature verification” before being sent to the counting site.

The posts also implied that “duffel bags, coolers and a variety of large bags” visible under tables at the facility could pose a security risk as they were next to trays containing mail-in ballots.

Although these claims have been shared thousands of times online, they are misleading, according to Baxter and Chris Thomas, a former state election chief who currently helps run Detroit’s absentee count committee.

The messages claimed that if the mail-in ballots had been verified by signature, they would have been marked as such in a box printed on the envelopes. They claimed that the candidates on the ballot had noticed that several boxes on the envelopes were not marked.

However, the reason some of the boxes in the envelopes were unmarked was that a machine that assisted in the signature verification process marked the ballots slightly lower, along the bottom edge of the ballots, explained Thomas and Baxter.

In Detroit, which is Michigan’s largest electoral jurisdiction, clerks verify most voter signatures on mail-in ballots using a mail-processing system called Relia-Vote, Baxter said. A machine dates mail-in ballot envelopes and photographs the signatures on them so clerks can view the images on a screen, digitally comparing them to signatures on the roster of qualified voters.

If a clerk rejects the signature on a ballot envelope, that ballot does not advance to be counted, Baxter said. If the clerk approves it as correspondence, the Relia-Vote system marks the ballot envelope with the ballot stub number and the name of the clerk who approved it, and sends it for tabulation.

The Relia-Vote system marks ballots at the bottom of envelopes, Thomas said. That’s why many ballot envelopes viewed on the Huntington Place ballot counting site did not bear the markings that ballot candidates expected.

The Relia-Vote system cannot read some barcodes, and in those cases, clerks mark the ballot envelopes by hand, Baxter said.

“In all cases, when the ballots were processed by the clerks or inspectors at the central counting office, all signatures were reviewed,” Baxter said.

The messages also suggested that large bags and coolers located under tables during the counting of ballots were a security concern. Baxter and Thomas dismissed this claim, explaining that everyone working in the room was constantly monitored during the counting process.

Baxter and Thomas said many site workers brought coolers with food to eat because safety protocols required them to stay on site for their entire shift. At mealtimes, Baxter said, they brought those belongings to a rest area where they were allowed to open their food and eat.

“They arrive at 6 a.m. and they can’t leave until 8 p.m.,” Thomas added. “And so they bring their breakfast, lunch and dinner and various snacks for the rest of the day.”

Thomas said the many ballot challengers and reporters at the facility during the counting process would notice if someone tried to sneak a ballot in or out. Baxter pointed out that audits of the mail-in ballot counting process would also help identify these issues.

Baxter said Detroit’s absentee ballot counting process for the primary election went generally well. A ballot candidate was removed from office after he failed to follow protocol and called the workers, he said.

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This is part of AP’s efforts to combat widely shared misinformation, including working with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.

Amanda J. Marsh