After what was an unprecedented 2-2 deadlock along partisan lines, with the two Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers voting against certifying the county’s November election results, the board unanimously voted to certify the results late Tuesday night.
The board also passed a resolution calling on Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, to conduct an independent comprehensive audit of all of the precincts in the county that recorded unexplained discrepancies between the number of ballots recorded as cast and the number of ballots counted.
All four members of the board unanimously supported the certification of the August primary election, which also saw unexplained discrepancies.
After initially voting against certifying the election results, Monica Palmer, the Republican chair of the committee, said she would be open to certifying the election results for other jurisdictions but not Detroit.
But Chris Thomas, the former director of elections for Michigan who served as a special adviser to Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, responded, “I think that’s absurd. I think that would make a mockery of the situation. To open the door to selective canvassing would be a huge disservice to the election process.”
Public commenters who spoke during the meeting accused the board’s Republican members of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of voters — particularly African-American voters — in initially refusing to certify the election.
Jonathan Kinloch, the Democratic vice chair of the board accused the Republican members of playing politics rather than fulfilling their legal obligation to certify the results. “I believe politics made its presence today,” Kinloch said. “This is reckless and irresponsible action by this board,” he added. Democratic board member Allen Wilson agreed. “I’m actually appalled to be sitting here today,” he said.
The board is comprised of four members — two Democrats and two Republicans.
Just minutes after the Republican members had voted against certifying the results, the Michigan Republican Party released a statement from Laura Cox, who chairs the state party.
“I am proud that, due to the efforts of the Michigan Republican Party, the Republican National Committee and the Trump Campaign, enough evidence of irregularities and potential voter fraud was uncovered resulting in the Wayne County Board of Canvassers refusing to certify their election results,” Cox said.
Michigan Democratic Party chair Lavora Barnes called the initial vote “an outrageous display of partisan posturing.” She added, “Monica Palmer and William Hartmann have chosen to tarnish their personal legacy by picking up the GOP banner of making allegations without any evidence. For the Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers to buy into conspiracy theories and completely disregard the will of the voters in Michigan is not only shameful but a complete dereliction of duties.”
Palmer had an ethics complaint filed against her in October accusing her of a conflict of interest. The complaint accused Palmer of running a “dark-money PAC” to promote candidates for the Grosse Pointe Board of Education, an election she oversees, and called on her to step down from the board. The Wayne County Ethics Board will meet Wednesday to discuss the complaint against Palmer.
Tuesday was the final day the board could certify the county’s election results. The unanimous vote to certify the results comes just in time for the board to meet the state’s deadline.
Legal challenges mounted in the wake of the election and brought increased attention to the audit and certification of the results undertaken by each county’s board of canvassers, a process that typically unfolds relatively unnoticed. The Zoom call for the board of canvassers’ meeting was initially limited to 100 participants, but was later expanded to accommodate more than 300 participants.
The meeting was called to order at 4:46 p.m. almost two hours late, as members waited on affidavits filed by individuals present at TCF Center, where Detroit’s election workers processed and counted the absentee ballots cast by the city’s voters.
A request made to the Michigan Supreme Court Tuesday morning asking the court to stop the Wayne County Board of Canvassers from certifying the election results before its scheduled 3 p.m. meeting also created last-minute uncertainty. The court did not grant leave to appeal before the members of the board met.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan celebrated the unanimous vote to certify the county’s election results. “Every court on the Detroit election results has ruled that Trump’s claims of error were baseless,” he said. “Had the Board of Canvassers disenfranchised 1.4 million Wayne County voters over partisan politics, it would have been an historically shameful act. Glad to see common sense prevailed in the end.”
Before the meeting bProtesters with the Metro Detroit Action Council, a local community organization that focuses on economic and racial injustices, gathered outside the building where the board of canvassers met, demanding the board certify the election results.
Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, a progressive advocacy organization, also called on the Republican members of the board to certify the election earlier Tuesday.
“No canvassing board has ever refused to certify an election. Refusal to certify the results is just a partisan attempt to stretch out the process, feed Trump’s lies about our elections, and set up a right-wing power grab that ignores the will of the people,” Scott said in a press release.
Wayne County’s unofficial election results, which were posted Nov. 5, showed former Vice-President Joe Biden received 587,074 votes — 67.99% of the votes cast for president in Wayne County — while President Donald Trump received 264,149, or 30.59%.
Trump has refused to concede the presidential contest to Biden, making unsubstantiated claims that the election was rife with fraud. Trump’s campaign and Republican challengers have filed lawsuits across the country to contest the election.
Six Michigan lawsuits seeking to delay or stop the certification of the state’s 16 electoral votes for Biden have focused on the three days Detroit’s election workers processed and counted the absentee ballots cast by the city’s voters at TCF Center. Lawsuits filed in the wake of the election have leveled allegations that thousands of invalid ballots were counted by Detroit election workers.
The lawsuits are based largely on Republican challengers’ allegations that Detroit election workers counted ballots cast by ineligible voters, as well as ballots that arrived past the return deadline. Republican challengers also have claimed that they were singled out by election workers from reentering the counting hub when the room had reached capacity, though officials noted that challengers from all parties were prohibited from reentering because of capacity limits. The claims have so far been rejected in court.
Two of the lawsuits were dismissed by Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Kenny. On Friday, Kenny dismissed a lawsuit filed by David Kallman on behalf of two Wayne County voters, writing in his opinion that the lawsuit presented an incorrect account of the events that took place at TCF. On Monday, Kallman asked the Michigan Court of Appeals to reverse the lower court’s ruling. After a three-judge panel denied the request, Kallman asked the Michigan Supreme Court Tuesday morning to act immediately to stop the Wayne County Board of Canvassers from certifying the election results and order a separate audit of the election.
Republican members of board focus on unexplained discrepancies
While auditing the August primary election results, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers found that in 363 of the city’s 503 precincts — roughly 72% of Detroit’s precincts — there was no explanation for small discrepancies between the number of absentee ballots recorded in the precinct’s poll book as cast and the number of absentee ballots counted. This election, 94 of the city’s 134 absent voter counting boards — roughly 70% of Detroit’s absent voter counting boards — recorded unexplained discrepancies. But Detroit was not the only jurisdiction that reported unexplained discrepancies this election.
Of Detroit’s 503 Election Day precincts, 66 recorded unexplained discrepancies in the vote totals as did 94 of the city’s 134 absent voter counting boards. The majority of Election Day precincts and absent voter counting boards that were not in “balance,” recorded discrepancies of three votes or less. Ten Election Day precincts and 43 absent voter counting boards recorded discrepancies of four or more votes or more. The discrepancies amount to roughly 367 votes. Detroit’s unofficial election results show roughly 150,000 Detroiters voted in November’s election.
Under Michigan election law, a precinct that is not in “balance” is disqualified from participating in a recount, and the election results originally reported by the precinct stand as final.
Shortly after certifying the county’s primary results, Kinloch told the Free Press that the board “saw no evidence of individuals voting who were not supposed to.” Instead, election officials pointed to voter records that were not consistently updated to reflect whether a voter had returned an absentee ballot, as well as ballots that were placed in the wrong precinct container as explanations for the discrepancies.
Speaking after the primary, Palmer told the Free Press that repeating the mistakes in November would spell disaster. “We cannot go into November repeating what happened in the primary. It absolutely cannot happen,” she said.
On Aug. 18, the board passed a resolution asking the State Department of Elections to investigate Detroit’s training for election workers staffing the absent voter counting boards tasked with processing and counting the absentee ballots cast by the city’s voters. The resolution also called on Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to appoint a monitor to supervise the city’s election worker training and absent voter counting boards.
In early September, Benson announced she was partnering with Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey to ensure the integrity of the city’s absentee ballot tabulation. Former Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas was brought into the partnership to serve as a special advisor to Winfrey.
Palmer and Hartmann were not pleased with the result. During a back-and-forth between Palmer and Kinloch during the meeting, Kinloch told Palmer that pointing to the discrepancies in Detroit’s August primary and noting similar mistakes were made in November, was “comparing apples and oranges” since the November election saw an unprecedented number of absentee ballots cast.
What happens next?
The Board of State Canvassers has until Nov. 23 to certify Michigan’s statewide election results. Recount petitions for the presidential, Senate, U.S. House and State House seats must be filed with the Secretary of State within 48 hours after the board has certified the statewide results.
A change to Michigan’s recount process made after the 2016 presidential election requires candidates to prove they have a reasonable chance to win in order to initiate a recount. Biden won Michigan by a wide margin — more than 146,000 votes — the state’s unofficial results show. Legal experts said they expect the State Board of Canvassers will meet the deadline for certifying the results of the presidential contest, despite pending lawsuits seeking to delay the process.
If legal disputes regarding the election are resolved by Dec. 8, the certified statewide results are free from any further legal challenge and Congress must accept them as final. Michigan’s 16 presidential electors are scheduled to convene Dec. 14 to cast the state’s Electoral College votes.
Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Contact Clara at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-296-5743 for comments or to suggest a fact-check.