Board of State Canvassers will discuss certifying Michigan’s votes. Why was the process easier in some places than others?

Monday, November 23, 2020 - 12:23pm

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Allison Engkvist/Daily

The Board of State Canvassers will meet Monday to discuss the certification of Michigan’s election results. Detroit, along with several other major cities in key swing states, has become a key focus of the Trump legal team and Republican Party as they try to undermine election results nearly three weeks after the polls closed on Nov. 3. 

The Michigan Republican Party and national GOP are seeking a delay in certification of the general election results to investigate unfounded claims of voter fraud and irregularities. Republican Senate candidate John James joined in after losing to Democratic Sen. Gary Peters by more than 90,000 votes, according to unofficial totals from the Secretary of State. President-elect Joe Biden has a margin of more than 154,000 votes over Trump.

James released a statement Friday emphasizing the importance of voters deserving “election outcomes that they can trust” as he asked for a delay without presenting any evidence of widespread fraud or mismanagement.

“I submit this request because I am interested in the truth and protecting the integrity of our elections,” James said. “Sometimes the truth takes time to surface, and it’s rarely easy to get to. Time is the most valuable asset we have at this stage and I ask that we take all the time reasonable and allowed-- not to undermine our elections -- but to improve them and boost public confidence in the results of the election.”

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Michigan Republican Party Chairman Laura Cox echoed James’ request for delay.

The state board must certify Michigan’s votes so that the state’s electors can be selected. These electors then cast the state’s votes in the Electoral College. However, the Trump campaign and Republican allies continue to try to delay the process, seeking to cast doubt on the integrity of votes from Detroit.

The state board’s vote follows a contentious meeting of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers at which the two GOP members of the bipartisan body at first refused to certify the Democratic stronghold’s results, citing out-of-balance precincts — places where the number of voters who signed into polling places did not line up with the number of ballots counted — despite the board certifying the results of the August primary when more precincts were unbalanced. 

After hours of voters calling into the meeting and accusing the GOP members of racism for trying to disenfranchise the majority Black city of Detroit, the Republicans, Monica Palmer and William Hartmann, relented and voted to certify. 

After reportedly getting a call from Trump, Hartmann and Palmer tried to reverse their “yes” votes, filing affidavits claiming they were intimidated into certifying the votes by the angry community members. State officials clarified that there was no legal way for Hartmann and Palmer to rescind their votes.

While Republicans have targeted Wayne County, other blue counties like Washtenaw, which is home to Ann Arbor, have largely been exempt from these efforts. One lawsuit filed by Republicans tried to throw out more than 1.2 million votes in Wayne, Washtenaw and Ingham, but the case was later withdrawn.

Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum told The Michigan Daily that while some precincts are out of balance due to human error during elections, it does not influence the outcome. 

“Out-of-balance problems are extremely minor and don’t affect vote counts,” Kestenbaim said. “What they do affect is whether a precinct is considered ‘recountable’ under Michigan’s peculiar law, (and) if a recount were to be held, the out-of-balance precincts could not be recounted, and the original vote totals from election night would be used.”

Washtenaw County Chief Deputy Clerk Ed Golembiewski told The Daily that these issues are typical after elections and not cause for panic. 

“It is not unusual for some precincts to begin the canvass process out-of-balance, and not worrisome in and of itself,” Golembiewski said. “Reconciling such precincts is one of the main duties of every county Board of Canvassers. I imagine nearly every county in the state (and certainly every county of significant size) begins their canvass with a number of precincts that must be brought into balance, especially during an election with record voter turnout.”

Washtenaw County certified its results earlier in the month without any major hiccups. Golembiewski said during the canvass of the general election, there were 14 out-of-balance precincts in the county at the beginning of the process. They were all brought into balance by the end. The bipartisan Washtenaw County Board of Canvassers then voted unanimously to certify the results.

Kestenbaum said unbalanced precincts are not new in Detroit. 

“In the 2016 presidential recount, about half the precincts in Detroit were out-of-balance and hence unrecountable,” Kestenbaum said. “That was an embarrassment for Detroit, for Wayne County, and for Michigan, but it didn’t really have much substantive effect on the recount.”

Republicans have fixated on the out-of-balance precincts, saying they prove the need to delay certification of the state’s votes for two weeks to wait for an audit of Wayne County.  

Legal experts, Democrats and even some Republicans have urged the state board to certify the results, saying failing to do so would be a partisan stunt that risks disenfranchising voters.

“The certification process must not be manipulated to serve as some sort of retroactive referendum on the expressed will of the voters,” Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, wrote in a statement. “That is simply not how democracy works.”

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., is one of several Republicans to break party lines and speak out against the administration’s legal efforts. 

“The voters have spoken,” Upton said on CNN this weekend. “No one has come up with any evidence of fraud or abuse. All 83 counties have certified their own election results.”

The state board’s decision Monday could determine whether or not the state is subject to a “constitutional crisis,” as one Republican lawmaker described it after meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. The meeting drew accusations that the state’s top Republicans were looking to subvert the will of voters. 

The lawmakers present denied this characterization, but Trump later tweeted out more baseless allegations of voter fraud in response to their description of the meeting. 

In a Monday op-ed in the Detroit Free Press, University of Michigan law professor Sam Bagenstos and Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, argued it would be a crime for the state board to not certify the results. 

“A canvassing board may not legally refuse to certify an election where no legitimate evidence undermines valid ballots,” Bagesntos and Levitt wrote. “ … The canvassers have one job. State courts can step in to make sure it gets done. Canvassers failing to do their duty may delay the inevitable for a moment — but not much more than that.”

The Board of State Canvassers will meet to discuss certification on Monday. The meeting will be livestreamed on Youtube.

 

Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu.

 


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