Voters in numerous communities across Oakland County were shocked Tuesday afternoon and evening when they tried to vote and were told, "Sorry! We're out of ballots."
The shortage was blamed on an unexpectedly big turnout for the primary election, typically ignored by many voters, as well as on some voters creating "spoiled ballots" when they tried to vote for candidates of more than one party — a practice not allowed in Michigan primary elections.
Whatever the reason, the problem constituted a scandalous potential infringement of voting rights for those unwilling to endure long waits to await new ballots or alternative means of voting, said the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan. By early Tuesday evening, the organization already had assigned two lawyers to investigate.
No voter would be denied the right to vote, state officials insisted. The Michigan Secretary of State's Bureau of Elections tweeted shortly before 7:30 p.m. the following:
"Polls close at 8 pm. All voters in line by 8 pm will be able to vote and should not leave the polling place. Voters can't be turned away due to lack of ballots. Clerks will provide more ballots to precincts as needed."
In Ferndale, "We've got a couple of precincts that are literally out of ballots, and we're hearing that the same thing is going on in many other cities," Mayor David Coulter said at 7:30 p.m.
The Free Press received reports of similar issues at polling places in communities such as Birmingham, West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills, Berkley, Hazel Park, Troy, Pontiac and Royal Oak.
"We've been in touch with the county, which prints the ballots, and we're being told that there aren't going to be any more available. So we're making copies of the ballots and also implementing our touch-screen voting machines, which create a paper verification of the vote," Coulter said.
"It appears to be an unprecedented primary turnout, and that's a good thing, but we hate to see anyone waiting a long time," he said.
In other communities, county officials printed extra ballots and rushed them out to polling sites, said Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown. County election officials printed more than enough ballots based on previous election turnouts, Brown said.
Under state law, "there's a formula for calculating the number of ballots we'd need, and then we padded that" but still fell short, she said.
"In Pontiac, they were first to say they were running out. They had many voters that were spoiling ballots by crossing over (from one party's column to that of another party), and I believe there was a lack of voter instruction there," Brown said.
In other communities, clerks or their staff called the county to ask for more ballots when they didn't need them, she added.
"In Madison Heights, I brought them another 100 ballots after they called but they had plenty of ballots. I did go to one precinct in Ferndale where they were low. I was getting emails and texts and it was, 'We're out — we're out!'
"In Southfield, I went personally to Precinct 24 and there was nobody in line and they're like, 'We have plenty of ballots,' and then in the same building there was Precinct 23 and they were running low. And I yelled to the people in line, 'Thank you for coming — you're all going to get ballots.'
"I will say that one of the many reasons I picked out new equipment is that these machines can print new ballots right at the precinct. But in Southfield, at least at one precinct, they couldn't do that because they didn't have the right-size paper."
Brown speculated that having two open congressional seats — one vacated by U.S. Rep. David Trott and the other by U.S. Rep. Sander Levin — led to an unusually high turnout. She conceded that the thought of any voters giving up on voting after enduring a long wait in line was "horrible."
In Farmington Hills, resident Katherine Schaefer said she voted earlier in the day without a problem but said her neighbor began waiting in line about 6 p.m., and the process took about an hour because of the lack of ballots.
"And she saw people walking away" after waiting a long time, Schaefer said, adding: "Some people have children or jobs to get to, and they can't stay."
The ACLU of Michigan began investigating numerous reports of precincts running out of ballots, said Sharon Dolente, voting rights strategist for the organization.
"I’ve gotten a lot of reports that precincts are running out of ballots, but I’ve also gotten reports that ballots are being delivered," she said.
"I think it’s great that we have such extraordinary turnout today, but we’d like to see a voter environment that’s 100% customer-service oriented," Dolente said.
Contact Bill Laitner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Free Press staff writer Kathleen Gray contributed.