This week’s Michigan election theft scare lasted just about three hours — unless you were checking your screen in real time, it may have passed you by. Yet, brief as the episode was, when historians look back on this strange interregnum in which President Donald Trump has not acknowledged President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, they could do worse than to dig deep into the sorry affair. It carries important lessons about how delicate our system of electoral transitions is, and also about the social forces that preserve the system despite its sometimes precarious-seeming character.
The historians will have to start with the weird institution at the heart of the events: the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. On Tuesday, two Republican election officials announced they would not agree to certify the county’s results before reversing themselves after a national outcry. Wednesday night, they attempted to reverse their reversal, but officials said it was too late.
The board has four members, two Democrats and two Republicans. They are technically appointed by the County Board of Commissioners to serve four-year terms. But in effect, they are political patronage appointees chosen by the state political parties. The two-and-two structure is a matter of courtesy. Wayne County, which includes Detroit, is overwhelmingly Democratic. All 83 boards of canvassers in Michigan have the same two-and-two structure.
The board’s most important job is to certify the county’s election results. Ordinarily, this is a simple matter; so simple, in fact, that it wouldn’t be unfair to refer to the members of the canvassing board as functionaries. They are part of the vast apparatus of overwhelmingly reliable and conscientious election officials all across the U.S. — the same officials who presided over a remarkably clean electoral process in 2020.
If the two Republicans on the board had stuck to their vote not to certify the results, the consequences could have been significant. In the heavily Black county, Biden won by more than 323,000 votes. Biden won Michigan by some 146,000 votes. If Wayne County was not counted in the total, the Michigan election results would have been unclear.
That might have enabled Republican legislators in Michigan to propose sending a slate of Trump electors to the Electoral College. Under federal law, states must certify election results unless the votes have not pointed to a winner. Losing Michigan wouldn’t have tipped the election. But successfully overturning the result in one state would have signaled to Trump supporters elsewhere that they might get away with the same maneuver.
Trump was certainly excited by the two Republicans’ initial refusal, and he tweeted approvingly almost as soon as the news came out. A future historian writing about the episode could credibly say that a couple of political hacks in Michigan attempted to fire the first shot in what might have become a coup d’état against Biden — one that Trump would presumably have encouraged.
The first lesson is that, implausible as it may seem, there were at least a few Republican officials at the state level who were prepared to take action to overthrow the election results. We shouldn’t forget that. Nor should we allow their speedy reversal to make us too sanguine.
We don’t know why the two Republican officials reversed themselves. One of them, Monica Palmer, did her cause no favors when she proposed excluding the votes from mostly Black Detroit while proposing to certify votes from mostly white neighborhoods. The criticism was immediate, intense and deserved. Did that public pressure lead the two Republicans to change their minds? Who knows. All we can say is that it didn’t come from Trump or the White House — or from Sen. Lindsey Graham, who also seems to have supported the decision and perhaps even inspired it. Perhaps the pressure came from state Republicans who didn’t want to have to deal with the mess. They certainly seem uninterested, now, in letting Palmer and the other Republican, William Hartmann, change their votes.
Regardless of how it happened, the episode teaches us that most Republicans in a closely contested swing state were not prepared, in the end, to break with democratic tradition and seek to replace the people’s votes with partisan usurpation. The principles of electoral fairness were too strong — and Michigan Republicans’ self-interest in not overtly breaking those principles prevailed.
This outcome indicates that the political virtue necessary to sustain democracy isn’t entirely dead, at least not among Michigan Republicans. The willingness to do the right thing under the law, even when the president of the United States is encouraging the contrary, is an irreducible necessity of a functioning democracy.
The republic survived another day, albeit only after facing a nontrivial challenge to its basic principles. Both lessons — of precariousness and robustness — deserve to be remembered and studied into the future.