“To simply gloss over those irregularities now without a thorough audit would only foster feelings of distrust among Michigan’s electorate,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and state GOP Chair Laura Cox wrote in a letter Saturday.
But state and county election data shows that four years ago — when Donald Trump carried the state by a much narrower margin — twice as many Detroit precincts were out of balance.
At the time, the problems were widely condemned by Democratic leaders, including Garlin Gilchrist, now the state’s lieutenant governor, who called the city’s handling of the election “a complete catastrophe.”
But neither Trump nor the Republican Party questioned the validity of those election results — or demanded an audit to verify the vote tally.
In the fall of 2016, 392 Detroit precincts, or 59 percent of the total, had discrepancies of at least one ballot, accounting for at least 916 votes, the data shows.
This fall, 179 Detroit precincts, or 28 percent of the total, had discrepancies of at least one ballot, accounting for at least 433 votes.
Democrats say that the GOP’s focus now on Detroit’s voting errors is simply an effort to undermine Biden’s victory.
“All of this ruckus that they’re raising, none of these issues are in a worse state than they were in 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost by a much smaller margin,” said Jonathan Kinloch, a Democratic member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers.
“From Day 1, it has been their intention to try to discredit and try to remove the Black vote from this election,” Kinloch added. “They know that removing the Black vote in this election would change the outcome.”
President Trump attacked the voting process in key states around the country as corrupt and rigged in an unprecedented attempt to overturn the results.
He and his legal advisers have fixated on the predominantly Black city of Detroit, where 94 percent of the roughly 250,000 votes went for Biden. “It changes the result of the election in Michigan if you take out Wayne County,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, said last week at a news conference in Washington.
GOP consultant Stu Sandler, who serves as legal counsel to the Michigan state Republican Party, acknowledged that Republicans did not request an audit in 2016. But he said what is at issue is not whether the GOP complained in the past, but chronic problems with the management of Detroit’s elections.
“There is no clear evidence that things have improved,” Sandler said.
Out-of-balance precincts can occur for several reasons. A machine may fail to scan the name of a voter on an absentee ballot envelope. A voter can make a mistake on a ballot and request a new one or sign into the poll book but leave before casting a ballot.
After the high number of Detroit precincts that were out of balance in 2016, then-Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and her Bureau of Elections conducted a post-election audit in the city of Detroit. The bureau concluded that almost half of the out-of-balance precincts could have been rectified if staff members had taken prompt actions to address the unbalanced numbers on election night or if the county canvassing board had been given more time to dig into the problems and reconcile the differences.
“[The Bureau of Elections] found no evidence of pervasive voter fraud, yet an abundance of human errors,” the bureau said in a 2017 report.
At the time, local officials, including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D), acknowledged the need for improvements.
“We can’t have that happen again,” Duggan told the Detroit News at the time. “Everybody in the city knows it was terrible, and the good news was, Michigan didn’t decide the national election because it would have shown a real spotlight.”
Trump, however, did not note the issue when he celebrated his win in the state.
“The Great State of Michigan was just certified as a Trump WIN giving all of our MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN supporters another victory,” he tweeted in late November 2016.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment about why he did not object to the vote certification at the time.
In the run-up to this fall’s election, Wayne County officials pledged to reduce the number of errors. After Election Day, county Elections Director Gregory Mahar said the number of votes that did not match the poll books amounted to 0.001 percent of the roughly 250,000 ballots cast in Detroit.
“Our canvassers really did a heck of a job,” Mahar said as he addressed the Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting last week.
State officials agreed that the city’s error rate had improved.
“A review of data from the November 2020 Wayne County Canvass showed a substantial improvement in the percentage of [Detroit] precincts that were in balance and recountable as compared both to the August 2020 Primary and the November 2016 General Election,” the Michigan Bureau of Elections wrote in a memo on Friday.
However, Republican officials have continued to press the issue, focusing on an even narrower category: the percentage of unbalanced absentee counting boards — jurisdictions set up by the city election commission to count absentee ballots separately from Election Day precincts.
This month, 94 of those boards — 70 percent of the total — could not reconcile their numbers, affecting at least 263 votes. That is a similar rate found during the August primary, when 363 absentee counting boards — about 72 percent of the total — were unbalanced, affecting at least 914 votes.
The number of errors in the August primary drew bipartisan condemnation from state officials. “I find this whole thing appalling,” Julie Matuzak, a Democratic member of the state canvassing board said at a meeting after the primary.
Republican Senate candidate John James, who lost his challenge to Sen. Gary Peters (D) by more than 95,000 votes, cited the error rate at absentee counting boards in a letter he sent to the state board of canvassers last week requesting that they hold off certifying the vote for two weeks to conduct an audit.
“A 30% accuracy rate in any industry, whether its business, education, healthcare or manufacturing scores as failure,” James wrote. “While I don’t doubt that many of our poll workers and volunteers worked hard, we need to do better for our elections.”
Charles Spies, an attorney for the James campaign, said the absentee ballot board figures show Wayne County has not improved since August. He acknowledged, however, that the audit James is seeking would probably not change the results of either the Senate or presidential race. “That’s very unlikely,” he said.
Former Michigan GOP chair Jeff Timmer, who previously served as a member of the state canvassing board, said Republicans are failing to give an accurate picture of the election process — and Wayne County’s progress since 2016.
“They’re cherry-picking and feeding into a public-relations narrative, not exercising any analysis or judgment related to the conduct of elections,” said Timmer, who now serves as an adviser to the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project.
Kinloch said the GOP is trying to “drive a false narrative that could jeopardize citizens’ faith in our elections.”
“They will not win in the end. Whether this election is certified on time or not, I know for sure that it will be certified,” he added. “We are a country of laws, and we’re governed by them, whether we like it or not, whether we win or whether we lose.”
Tom Hamburger in Detroit contributed to this report.