The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Trump tried to steal Michigan

Supporters of President Trump protest the presidential vote count outside TFC Center, where absentee ballots were counted Nov. 6 in Detroit. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s effort to undermine confidence in mail-in ballots began in the spring. On April 8, for example, he tried to differentiate on Twitter between absentee ballots — which he used — and other forms of voting by mail, which he insisted were “very different” and “RIPE for FRAUD.”

Among the tens of thousands of people who shared Trump’s message was William Hartmann, a Republican active in party politics in Michigan. Hartmann didn’t share many things on Twitter; his most recent prior tweet was a disparagement of Democrats after an incident in which a man drove a van into a tent where Republicans were registering voters in Florida.

“Be careful,” Hartmann wrote then. “The Left is crazy.”

This combination of views — Democrats are dangerous, and mail-in voting is suspicious — is not uncommon among Republicans or supporters of Trump. That Hartmann both accepted and publicized them is noteworthy, given that Hartmann wasn’t just a Republican activist in Michigan. He was also one of four members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, the group designated with certifying the results of the 2020 election in the most populous county in the state.

On Tuesday night, Hartmann and the other Republican member of the board, Monica Palmer, declined to do so.

Suddenly, President-elect Joe Biden’s win in Michigan seemed to be up in the air. Trump and members of his team celebrated the decision. Jenna Ellis, one of Trump’s legal advisers, crowed that the decision paved the way for “Republican state legislator[s] [to] select the electors” — that is, for the Republican-led legislature in Michigan to determine that the state’s 16 representatives in the electoral college should support Trump and not Biden.

Trump's long-shot bid to steal the election from Biden suddenly seemed if not viable then at least possible.

A situation like this was the plan all along. Trump’s initial efforts to undermine mail-in voting was an obviously opportunistic response to states’ expansion of tools allowing people to avoid voting in person, itself a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on voting systems since before his 2016 election, a function not of any evidence of significant dubious activity related to voting but, instead, of his long-standing resistance to any appearance of failure.

When it seemed likely Trump would lose in 2016, for example, he insisted that he would lose only if there were rampant fraud in an election rigged against him. When he won the presidency while losing the popular vote, he repeatedly claimed that fraud had cost him state-level wins and the popular-vote margin. As the 2020 contest neared and polling showed him trailing, the focus turned to mail-in votes.

This had an advantage that his in-person fraud claims didn’t. In part because he disparaged mail-in voting, his supporters were more likely to vote on Election Day. In states where absentee and mail-in ballots were counted once Election Day arrived, that set up a scenario in which Trump would have an apparent lead until the mail-in votes were counted, allowing an unscrupulous actor to claim that Trump had won a state, only to see that win snatched away.

Trump, of course, made such claims early on the morning of Nov. 4. He focused on Pennsylvania, where the Republican legislature had declined to allow mail-in votes to be tabulated before the election. His claims, though, would also have applied to Michigan, where the same dynamic unfolded.

The results in Michigan, though, weren’t close. Trump won the state by a small fraction of a percentage point in 2016 only to lose it by more than 2 points four years later. Biden’s margin over Trump, as of writing, is more than 145,000 votes, about 13 times Trump’s victory in 2016. (That year, in an effort to stave off a recount, Trump’s lawyers argued that the election was “not tainted by fraud or mistake.”)

Biden’s win was a function of increasing his vote margins in counties across the state. The majority of Michigan counties voted more heavily for Biden in 2020 than they had for Hillary Clinton in 2016, allowing the Democrat to erode Trump’s advantage across the board.

In fact in Wayne County, home to Detroit, Biden’s margin over Trump was about the same as Clinton’s margin over Trump four years ago. Biden earned 13 percent more votes than Clinton had, while Trump added more than 15 percent to his total. In other words, Trump lost Michigan not because anything changed in Wayne County but despite nothing changing there.

But there were two reasons that the Trump campaign might want to focus on Wayne County in any effort to call Michigan’s results into question. That Biden won the county by more than 320,000 votes meant that somehow throwing out the Wayne County ballots would give Trump a hefty win in the state. In that way, the county served as a microcosm of some Trump supporters’ evaluation of his 2016 popular vote loss: Remove California from the equation, and he won the popular vote that year, too. Get rid of the voters Trump’s base doesn’t like in the first place, and he’s the victor.

That, of course, is the second reason that Wayne County might be targeted. Detroit is one of the cities that has been a frequent focus of Trump’s disparagement, a place that serves as a rhetorical shorthand for Democratic leadership, urban strife, political machinations and, of course, Black America. Palmer, the other Republican on the Wayne County board of canvassers, put a fine point on Detroit in her comments Tuesday night, suggesting that perhaps the county’s vote could be certified except for the vote from the city itself.

In the days after the election, the Trump team did its best to gin up skepticism about the results in Wayne County. It solicited complaints from volunteers sent to augment the vote-counting observation process in the city, generating several hundred affidavits which White House press secretary-slash-campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany waved around on Fox News as evidence that something suspicious had happened in the county.

In reality, the stack of affidavits was simply an effort to replace substance with quantity. Most of the complaints documented what untrained observers saw as suspicious activity, such as a worker trying repeatedly to feed ballots through a malfunctioning scanner. There was only one complaint in which possible fraud was alleged, with a woman claiming that her deceased son had cast a ballot. (It’s not clear whether this was simply a function of a living voter sharing her son’s name.) As the city of Detroit put it in its response to the pile of documents, "[m]ost of the objections raised in the submitted affidavits are grounded in an extraordinary failure to understand how elections function.”

While McEnany’s pile of paper failed to convince the courts that something illegal or even suspicious had occurred, that wasn’t really her goal. You don’t go hyping stacks of paper on Sean Hannity’s show in an effort to convince judges that your complaints have legal weight. You go on Hannity’s show to get a large audience and a noncritical host as you make unfounded allegations of improper behavior.

This broad effort by Trump’s team to convince his base that the election was illegitimate has been successful, according to recent polling. More than 8 in 10 Trump voters say that Biden’s win isn’t legitimate, and about the same number say that there was enough fraud committed to have swung the result. In reality, there’s been no more than a handful of fraud cases identified; far, far too little to have swung even the closest races. But actual evidence has never bounded Trump’s rhetoric.

It’s also important to note that Republicans were primed to suspect that fraud was rampant well before Trump arrived on the scene. Republican lawmakers have for years raised the specter of fraud as they advocated for policies that made it harder to vote — policies that tend to disadvantage voters who are more likely to support Democrats.

Hartmann, for example, didn’t need Trump’s recent rhetoric to view voting in his state with suspicion. In 2018, he claimed on Facebook that Michigan was “#1 in voter fraud.” His rationale for the claim isn’t clear, but there was and is no evidence that there’s any significant fraud in the state.

For the Trump campaign, Hartmann was the right guy in the right place at the right time — with the right beliefs. As the certification deliberations began, officials noted that there were precincts in which the number of votes cast didn’t precisely match the number of people who had signed in, though, as the New York Times’s Kathy Gray reported, the numbers were small and not necessarily indicative of anything fraudulent occurring. Nor were the suspect precincts only in Detroit.

Yet Palmer and Hartmann used this discrepancy as their primary rationale for objecting to certification of the vote. Gray reported that the board deadlocked on a 2-to-2 vote at 5:56 p.m. At 5:58 p.m., the Republican Party in Michigan released a statement praising the decision.

It took about as long for a broad public outcry to emerge. Blocking the Wayne County result wouldn’t prevent the state from certifying its results, but it threw a potential wrench into the process, particularly since at least one member of the statewide board had already expressed a willingness not to certify the result. It was unlikely that the Republican legislature would do what Ellis suggested it might and appoint electors loyal to Trump, given public comments from the Republican leader of the state senate earlier in the day. But this still pushed things closer to Trump somehow stealing away the state than seemed likely 24 hours prior.

Again: This was part of the plan. In September, Barton Gellman reported that officials in Pennsylvania had already reached out to Trump’s campaign about the possibility of getting legislatures to appoint pro-Trump electors. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported Tuesday evening that this was the explicit strategy of Rudolph W. Giuliani, now Trump’s point person on trying to wrench a victory out of his 2020 loss. Keep states from certifying the actual vote results and then use the legislatures to hand wins to Trump.

As quick as the Republican Party was to praise the decision in Wayne County, though, the public outcry was as fast and much louder. Democratic officials in Michigan were immediately vocal in decrying the move — as were a number of Republican leaders nationally. Social media lighted up, as did cable news channels. At the board of canvassers’ meeting, Palmer and Hartmann were sitting through an hours-long public comment period in which they were the targets of unceasing criticism. Snippets of the public comment period went viral.

A few hours after the initial vote, the board of canvassers voted again. This time, with an assurance that there would be an audit of the vote in Wayne County, all four board members voted to certify the results. The crisis passed. The results of the 2020 contest appeared to move forward as the voters intended, awarding the state’s electoral votes to Biden.

The incident nonetheless serves as an early warning of a number of problematic trends. That the Trump campaign is happy to set aside cast votes in favor of grabbing four more years in office for the president. That his rhetoric about voter fraud has bolstered a broad sense among his supporters that something suspicious happened even though he has presented no evidence that it did. And, perhaps most disconcerting, that the results of the election in many places come down to our ability to have confidence in a handful of individual actors. In some places, that confidence has been rewarded, as with the Republican secretary of state in Georgia. In other places, as in Wayne County, it has been eroded.

The deadline for Georgia to certify its vote is Friday. We should now expect similar machinations in every state where the results contributed to Biden’s win.