Antrim vote glitch: Expert shares how county mistakenly flipped from red to blue

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson talks about Michigan election
MANDI WRIGHT, DETROIT FREE PRESS

LANSING — A failure to properly update software was the reason for a computer glitch that caused massive errors in unofficial election results reported from Antrim county, the Michigan Department of State said late Friday.

And a U-M professor of computer science and engineering who specializes in voting systems and securities says it appears the snafu arose from an "unusual sequence of events very unlikely to affect any other jurisdictions."

"The erroneous reporting of unofficial results from Antrim county was a result of accidental error on the part of the Antrim County clerk," the state agency that oversees elections said in a news release.

There was no problem with the voting machines or vote totals, which were preserved on tapes printed from the tabulators, the state said. The problem occurred when the totals by precinct were combined into candidate county-wide totals for transfer to the state, using election management system software, the state agency said.

"All ballots were properly tabulated. However, the clerk accidentally did not update the software used to collect voting machine data and report unofficial results."

Antrim County uses voting machines supplied by Dominion Voting Systems. The same equipment is used by most Michigan counties, especially smaller ones. But the state said the software problem was not related to the Dominion voting equipment. Antrim receives programming support from  another company, Election Source, the agency said.

J. Alex Halderman, the U-M professor and voting systems expert, said he has looked into the incident and determined that the problem arose because Antrim officials made a mistake before the election when they loaded a new version of the "election definition" — the data that is similar to a spreadsheet describing the races and candidates on the ballot.

According to the state, the new "election definition" was loaded in October after county officials learned of two local races in which ballot information had to be updated.

County officials correctly loaded the new version onto the scanners for the affected precincts, but left the old version on scanners for precincts where the ballot was not affected by the late change, Halderman said.

So although the scanners in the tabulators counted all the votes in each precinct correctly, the different versions of the ballot resulted in problems and erroneous vote totals when the precinct results were combined in the election management system, a separate software package used to manage and consolidate results before they are reported to the state, he said.

"Since the scanners ... used slightly different election definitions, some of the positions didn't line up properly," Halderman said. "As a result, when the results were read by the election management system, some of them were initially assigned to the wrong candidates."

State officials did not immediately respond to questions about whether they track when and how local officials update their election-related software or whether local officials are required to report needed updates or late ballot changes to the state, once they are completed.

But they said any such errors in any county would be caught during the canvassing process, before results are declared official, when boards composed of two Democrats and two Republicans compare the numbers on the tapes printed from the tabulators to the unofficial results that were reported to the state.

Antrim County on Thursday posted updated and revised numbers for the presidential and U.S. Senate races after discovering major errors in the numbers the county initially sent to the Secretary of State's Office. The effect of the errors gave higher-than-accurate vote totals to Democratic candidates in the heavily Republican county.

The revised numbers — arrived at after manually entering the results from printed tabulated tapes for all 16 precincts — show the northern Michigan county is still red, just not as dark a shade as it was in 2016.

The county is reporting Republican President Donald Trump beat Democrat Joe Biden by about 2,500 votes, with Trump receiving 56% of the slightly more than  17,000 votes cast for president and Biden receiving 42%.

More: Antrim County still red after vote tally snafu showed Joe Biden winning it

More: Antrim County election results investigated after red Michigan county turns blue

Political observers had expressed shock early Wednesday when the county transferred numbers to the state showing Biden beating Trump by about 3,000 votes. Antrim is a Republican stronghold where local GOP officials have mostly run unopposed in recent elections.

In 2016 in Antrim County, Trump got about 62% support, beating Democrat Hillary Clinton by about 4,000 votes.

County Clerk Sheryl Guy told the Free Press Wednesday that officials sent the initial results to the state without checking them. But they later asked: "How could Democrats take over this county?" she said.

Because most counties in the state — especially smaller ones — use the Dominion Voting Systems equipment that Antrim County does, concerns were raised this week about whether other county results could have been posted with errors.

But that's not the case, according to the Department of State, which stressed in the news release that the votes were correctly tabulated and the printed tapes showing the results were also accurate in Antrim.

"In order to report unofficial results, county clerks use election management system software to combine the electronic totals from tabulators and submit a report of unofficial results," the release said. "Because the clerk did not update software, even though the tabulators counted all the ballots correctly, those accurate results were not combined properly when the clerk reported unofficial results."





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