TRAVERSE CITY — It was sometime in the mid to late 1990s when Bonnie Scheele encountered her first — and only — case of voter fraud.
“This was way back before we had the qualified voter file,” Scheele, Grand Traverse County’s clerk, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “A person had an old voter ID card, they voted in one precinct, then they went to another precinct over the county line, managed to vote there and that’s when we caught ‘em.”
The qualified voter file is a computerized statewide voter registration and election management system adopted in 2002, linking election officials with updated voter records.
The man was prosecuted, Scheele said. His name, the charge and the sentence he received are buried somewhere in two-plus decades of court documents.
There are 29 possible charges which can be levied against someone accused of violating Michigan’s election laws, from ineligible voting, to identity theft, to carrying a campaign sign into the voting booth, state documents show.
Most are misdemeanors, said Jody Thayer, of the Grand Traverse County Prosecutor’s Office, though a bill which passed the state senate in June would would make tampering with an absentee ballot a felony.
At the request of the Record-Eagle, Thayer ran a computer search of the office’s past prosecutions database for all 29 charges. The search returned not a single case.
“Nope, not one, nothing at all,” she said.
Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg was hired in 1997 as an assistant prosecuting attorney, then appointed in 2018 to serve out Robert Cooney’s term after he was elected 86th District Court judge.
She recalled no voter fraud prosecutions by her office in that 22 years, so the county-hopping voter likely committed his crime before that.
The difficulty of locating that single fraud needle in the county’s ballot haystack perfectly illustrates how rare voter fraud is, Scheele said.
In May, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced that because of COVID-19, all of the state’s 7.7 million registered voters would receive an application to vote by mail.
“Since then, I’ve received a lot of questions, many specifically about absentee voting, and it is safe and secure,” Scheele said. “The local clerks are very good at this. For example, Garfield Township has a machine that counts 100 ballots a minute. It’s a sight to see.”
Garfield Township Clerk Lanie McManus purchased the DS-450 in 2018 and trained three election workers on its use, she said.
“Absentee ballots are kept under lock and key, under seal, when they come in,” said McManus, who recalled no cases of voter fraud in her eight years at the township.
“We do double-check all the signatures, and we’ve had a couple over the years where a spouse has signed, and those are either rejected or they come in and re-sign,” McManus said. “They’re a little sheepish when we call.”
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative research and educational organization compiled a nationwide database of convictions of voter fraud, and lists 11 in Michigan between 2007 and 2016.
In that same time period, more than 21 million ballots were cast during the state’s presidential and gubernatorial elections, Michigan Secretary of State voter turnout statistics show.
Local and state records show only isolated cases of voter fraud, still some have expressed repeated concerns about election security during the pandemic.
In response, Scheele said she answers all questions from voters and officials, and worked with County IT Director, Cliff DuPuy, to put together a-first-of-its-kind remote training class for election workers.
County clerks are required by law to train all election workers in jurisdictions with fewer than 10,000 voters; those in larger jurisdictions can train election workers themselves or send them to the county for training, Scheele said.
Scheele said she trained nearly 300 election workers with the new remote training class, which includes video, audio, assignments and quizzes.
She credited the cooperation between the county, the townships and Traverse City, for its high level of participation.
For voters who express a desire for absentee voting to be the exception, rather than the rule, Scheele has a tip:
“If you really want in-person voting to continue and not go away, even during a pandemic, you should volunteer to be a precinct worker,” Scheele said.
“Because if nobody is brave enough to work at the precinct, that’s a problem.”