By Steve Neavling
DETROIT (Reuters) - More than two weeks after Detroit's August mayoral primary, a dispute over the counting of write-in ballots has left the election, much like the city's restructuring in bankruptcy court, in the hands of the state of Michigan.
In unofficial city results, former hospital chief executive Mike Duggan won after a successful write-in campaign, defeating Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon in the August 6 primary.
However, the Wayne County election canvassing board on Tuesday declined to certify that result or adopt a recommendation from the Wayne County Clerk's office to exclude about 18,000 write-in votes and make Napoleon the winner.
At issue was whether city election workers erred when they simply wrote down a number when recording the write-in vote totals from those ballots in an election book instead of using hash marks to show the running totals for election canvassers.
Under state law, Michigan election officials certify an election when a county fails to do so. The state board plans to review the disputed votes next week and certify a winner.
Michigan Elections Director Chris Thomas said on Wednesday state law does not require workers to use tally marks and errors by precinct workers should not invalidate otherwise valid votes.
"If the board was concerned with the hash marks being there, than they had the authority to look at those ballots and retabulate them," Thomas told reporters on a conference call. "They should have done that."
Discarding ballots because of the way they were counted would be unusual, said Jocelyn Benson, dean of Wayne State University Law School, adding that "voters need the assurance that their votes will be tallied appropriately."
In either case, Duggan and Napoleon will face each other on November 5 in the general election to determine a successor to Mayor Dave Bing, who said in May he would not seek re-election.
The primary, held less than three weeks after Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection on July 18, drew more than a dozen named candidates and Duggan's write-in campaign even though mayoral powers were greatly reduced when bankruptcy attorney Kevyn Orr was named Detroit emergency manager in March.
Orr is expected to have broad oversight over city finances for at least another year, but the mayoral office remains a coveted position responsible for day-to-day operations, political analysts said.
Once the automotive center of the world, Detroit's economy and population have shrunk and the city is saddled with debts estimated at between $18 billion and $20 billion.
Former state Representative Lisa Howze, who was among those defeated in the mayoral primary, said on Wednesday that the emergency manager's presence did not discourage candidates.
"The mayor will offer another viewpoint in the public so people can decide if the emergency manager is doing what's best for Detroit or if this is just self-aggrandizement," Howze said.
Greg Bowens, a political consultant and former press secretary to ex-Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, said an emergency manager is not accountable in the same way as a mayor.
"If you have a problem with city government or services, the place to air your grievance is with elected officials, like the mayor and city council," Bowens said.
(Editing by David Bailey and Mohamad Zargham)