DETROIT — Republican members of a key Michigan elections board refused on Tuesday to certify Detroit’s election results in a nakedly partisan effort to hold up Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump — only to reverse themselves after an outcry from the city’s voters and state officials.
The initial deadlock and pressure-packed turnaround capped a chaotic day of repeated Republican misfires in the party’s attempt to undermine the election results. Republicans lost a case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and faced a skeptical reception in a separate hearing in federal court in Pennsylvania, and an audit in Georgia confirmed there was no foul play with voting machines.
The Republican gambit in Detroit was among the starkest examples of how previously routine aspects of the nation’s voting system have been tainted by Trump’s effort to challenge his defeat, and he appeared to revel in the night’s chaos with celebratory tweets attacking Detroit even after the deadlock ended.
But the reversal by the elections board in Wayne County — which is home to Detroit — showed the limits of what has been, in essence, an effort to disenfranchise large numbers of Americans. The board’s GOP members certified the results only after voters there angrily accused the Republicans of trying to steal their votes.
At first, the two Republicans on the board said they were voting against certifying the results because many precincts in the county had conflicting figures for the numbers of votes cast and the number of voters they recorded as having participated, even though the disparities mostly involved a small number of ballots. The board deadlocked, with Michigan Democrats denouncing the opposition as a blatantly political intrusion into the process, and criticizing the Republican move as racist.
At one point, a Republican board member, Monica Palmer, had made a motion to “certify the results in the communities other than the city of Detroit” — a move that would effectively disenfranchise one of the nation’s major predominantly Black cities.
Mark Brewer, an election law expert and a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, noted that Palmer’s motion would have blocked certification for Detroit, where Black residents make up 78% of the population, and certified the results for communities like Livonia, where the Black population is 4.4%.
“Monica Palmer sat there and said she’s willing to approve the results of the lily-white city of Livonia, which had the second-highest number of out-of-balance precincts, but she won’t certify the city of Detroit,” Brewer said. “There is no reason to single out the city of Detroit for this racist treatment.”
The deadlock looked at first like a rare win for Trump, who, despite repeated losses in court and a string of baseless claims, has continued undaunted with a relentless legal, procedural and rhetorical assault on the country’s election system.
Even after the board cleared its initial stalemate, the night provided fresh evidence that, at the very least, Trump’s campaign is managing to disrupt what has long been an orderly process of certifying the clear winner of the popular and Electoral College votes and ensuring a peaceful transfer of power. Though Trump’s supporters have appeared to delight in his attacks, the Michigan confusion showcased a counterforce — angry voters who would not abide any possibility that their votes would be nullified by the president’s maneuvering.
Though Trump faces impossible odds in his attempt to force a different result from the one voters rendered, he and top Republican allies have shown that they have no intention of ceasing their attacks on the voting system.
The chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, a Michigan native with strong ties to the state’s Republicans, said on Twitter after the initial deadlock, “We need to further investigate, and every legal vote needs to be counted to ensure the integrity of the election.” There were no indications that any of the issues in Wayne County were related to fraud.
The Republican moves in Michigan came on the same day that Trump ousted the chief of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is responsible for protecting the national voting infrastructure and has aggressively disputed the false claims by Trump and his supporters that election software improperly gave votes to Biden.
Though the night ended with a resolution, the fight at the Wayne County canvassing board pointed to how Trump’s supporters were focusing on even the minutiae of state certification processes that are usually shielded from the hardball tactics of national political campaigns. Biden won the heavily Democratic county by nearly 323,000 votes; he prevailed in Michigan by about 148,000 votes, or 50.5% to Trump’s 47.9%.
Michigan has 83 county canvassing boards, each of which was to certify its results by Tuesday. Next, the process moves to Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers, where the final results are to be finalized by a Nov. 23 deadline.
At issue in Wayne County were minor discrepancies in which the number of votes cast did not match the number of voters listed as having shown up to vote in various election precincts. This could have stemmed from scenarios like a voter leaving a long line, or an absentee ballot kicked out of a tabulator, among other possibilities. Most involved a handful of votes, and were the types of inconsistencies that are frequently found during canvassing processes without leading to deadlocks like the one that happened on Tuesday.
Sensing that Republicans might play politics with the certification, Reps. Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib, two Democrats from metro Detroit, started making calls around 1:30 p.m. Eastern time, urging Democrats to join the Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting to ensure that the election results would actually be certified. Requests to join the Zoom call quickly went beyond capacity, with 300 people on the digital meeting when it started around 4:45 p.m.
After the first 2-2 vote, all of those participants stayed and the board opened up the meeting to public comment. A broad coalition — Detroit voters, clergy members, Middle Eastern immigrants, Black women, environmentalists, civil rights leaders and people who had worked at the polls and the absentee voting center — spoke out on the deadlock, repeatedly calling the Republican members racist and saying they were trying to disenfranchise Detroit voters.
“The Trump stain, the stain of racism that you, William Hartmann and Monica Palmer, have covered yourself in, are going to follow you throughout history,” said Ned Staebler, the chief executive of TechTown, a high-tech business incubator in Detroit and a poll challenger at TCF Center in the city. “You will forever be known in southeast Michigan as two racists who did something so unprecedented that they disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Black voters in the city of Detroit.”
The video call went mute for about five minutes at roughly 9 p.m., after about three hours of angry commentary by people dialing into the meeting. When the board came back, its members informed the crowd that they had just voted unanimously to certify the results and ordered Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to conduct a thorough audit of the Wayne County results, especially the precincts with disparities. They didn’t explain how the reversal had come about.
“The people who were there told the truth,” Dingell said. “And it worked.”
A senior adviser to Biden, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dismissed the trouble at the canvassing board as one in a series of stunts by Trump and his allies to stave off the inevitable certification of a Biden victory at the Electoral College.
A senior adviser to Trump, Justin Clark, said the campaign had played no role at the canvassing board. “This wasn’t us,” he said.
The Wayne canvassing board was not the last hurdle in the Michigan certification process. The Board of State Canvassers, which must deliver final state certification, consists of two Democrats, Jeannette Bradshaw and Julie Matuzak, and two Republicans, Norman D. Shinkle and Aaron Van Langevelde.
Shinkle’s wife, Mary Shinkle, filed an affidavit in support of a lawsuit the Trump campaign has brought in federal court alleging voting irregularities in Wayne County. The affidavit claimed, among other things, that poll workers had been “extremely rude and aggressive” to her and other observers, that they had not allowed her to look over their shoulders as they processed ballots, and that envelopes and ballot stubs had not been securely stored. The judge in a similar suit in a state case had dismissed similar affidavits as based on “an incorrect interpretation of events.”
Tuesday’s drama stoked fears among Democrats that Trump was working to force Michigan and other critical states to miss their certification deadlines so that Republican-controlled legislatures could appoint their own slates of pro-Trump delegates to the Electoral College, regardless of popular vote victories for Biden — moves that Biden’s lawyers have dismissed as legally futile.
Mike Shirkey, the Republican majority leader in the Michigan state Senate, said in an interview on Tuesday with Bridge Michigan, a local news outlet, that the Legislature would not move to appoint its own slate of electors.
“That’s not going to happen,” Shirkey said.
The state board is supposed to certify its results on Nov. 23. But Christopher Thomas, an adviser to the Detroit city clerk, said that the state would have until mid-December to submit its tallies to the Electoral College, which he said was plenty of time, even if the state board deadlocks, which would most likely force the fight into the courts.
“When they deadlock, the court generally tells them, ‘Your job is ministerial,’ which means you count the votes,” he said, “and you publish the certified results.”
Minutes after the board had reversed itself, Trump celebrated on Twitter, stating incorrectly that Michigan, and not just Wayne County, had “refused to certify the election results” and that “Having courage is a beautiful thing.”
But Benson quickly responded to the president, perhaps both on his timing and his tweet.
“Wrong again,” she wrote.