The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tension grips Michigan as Trump’s election attacks continue to reverberate

Protesters seeking an audit of the 2020 election attend a rally outside the Michigan Capitol in Lansing on June 17. (Sarah Rice for The Washington Post)

As Michigan state Rep. Donna Lasinski got out of her car at the state Capitol in Lansing on a sunny morning last week, she was greeted by two people carrying what she described as assault rifles while protesters outside the building called for an audit of the 2020 election.

Such disconcerting encounters are not uncommon in Lansing — a reflection of persistent and growing tension gripping Michigan eight months after Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump and more than a year after arrests were made in a plot to kidnap and kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election have persisted in this state, where local county officials are contending with demands by some residents to review ballots for possible fraud. The mounting calls by Trump supporters to revisit the election results are creating a thorny dilemma for the state Republican Party, which has sought to fend off those efforts, even as GOP officials seek changes to election law.

Former president Donald Trump has remained the main driver of the Republican Party priorities, despite losing his reelection bid in 2020. (Video: Blair Guild, JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Trump has grown increasingly consumed with ballot audits as he pushes falsehood that election was stolen

On Wednesday, a Republican-controlled state Senate committee issued a report forcefully rejecting the claims of widespread fraud in the state, saying citizens should be confident in the results and skeptical of “those who have pushed demonstrably false theories for their own personal gain.”

The chairman of the Oversight Committee that produced the report, Sen. Ed McBroom, said in an accompanying letter that “at this point, I feel confident to assert the results of the Michigan election are accurately represented by the certified and audited results.”

But the report also recommended changes to the election system, providing fodder for Republican officials who — like their counterparts in other states — are seeking to pass strict new voting rules, hoping to use a quirk in state law to sidestep an expected veto from the Democratic governor.

Last week, a few hundred demonstrators carrying boxes of affidavits signed by thousands of people demanding a state ballot audit showed up at the Capitol. On Tuesday, a GOP legislator introduced a bill to start the audit process, although it so far does not have support among other lawmakers.

The drumbeat for audits has been accompanied by increasingly violent and vitriolic threats against state and local officials. The escalating rhetoric has left legislators from both parties lamenting what happened to the state that was home to moderate political consensus builders such as President Gerald Ford, governor George Romney and the late representative John Dingell.

As Lasinski, the House Democratic leader, walked to her office last week, speakers on the Capitol steps lambasted officials who have resisted requests to review last year’s ballots and asserted that the election was well-run and that Biden received more votes than Trump.

“They are lying,” said Matthew DePerno, a lawyer who is spearheading the petition drive. A small crowd cheered as he denounced Michigan’s secretary of state as a “tyrant” and the state’s Democratic governor as “the Fuhrer” and claimed that county clerks — many of them Republicans — had engaged in racketeering and conspiracy.

“These people have committed crimes,” he said.

“Put them in shackles,” shouted a man in the crowd, to whoops and applause.

Lasinski said the atmosphere has grown more fraught by the day.

“It seems we have become ground zero in this effort we see across the country to suppress democracy and deny the peaceful transfer of power,” she said.

DePerno did not respond to a request for comment.

'Zero credibility'

The demands for recounts in Michigan are rooted largely in an election night error in rural Antrim County, which temporarily showed Donald Trump losing the historically Republican stronghold. The mistake was quickly corrected to show Trump carried the county with 61 percent of the vote.

However, Trump and his supporters seized on the error. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, a Michigan resident, held a news conference days after the election in which she decried a “major software issue in Antrim County” that she said could hold implications for the election in other areas.

False theories about what happened in Antrim proliferated and a local resident filed a suit challenging the results in the county last fall. Trump hailed it in a statement this year as “the major Michigan Election Fraud case,” adding that “the number of votes is MASSIVE and determinative.”

Last month, a Michigan judge dismissed the suit, citing an audit conducted by Michigan’s secretary of state that found the election had been conducted fairly and accurately.

In its report Wednesday, the Senate Oversight Committee recommended that the attorney general investigate “those who have been utilizing misleading and false information about Antrim County to raise money or publicity for their own ends,” adding that their statements have “zero credibility.”

“All compelling theories that sprang forth from the rumors surrounding Antrim County are diminished so significantly as for it to be a complete waste of time to consider them further,” McBroom wrote in his letter.

But the calls that began in Antrim have spread to a handful of other counties, where citizens have demanded audits, some citing a documentary produced by MyPillow founder Mike Lindell that falsely claims votes were hacked by foreign powers.

Inspired by Arizona recount, Trump loyalists push to revisit election results in communities around the country

On Tuesday, the board of commissioners of Cheboygan County — a tiny jurisdiction that Trump won with 64 percent of the vote — agreed to send a letter to the state elections director seeking permission to conduct a ballot audit, citing concerns from constituents. (The Cheboygan board said it would seek to hire “an accredited election auditor,” a distinction from the widely criticized recount underway in Arizona, which is being conducted by a firm that is not federally accredited to test voting systems.)

The vote in Cheboygan came the same day that state Rep. Steve Carra (R) introduced legislation to pursue a statewide audit. He said he and his supporters were not seeking to overturn the election, but rather to investigate the state’s election apparatus, including the vulnerability of voting machines.

“We need to look into this system, which I would contend is very ripe for fraud,” Carra told Michigan reporters.

The office of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) has said it will respond to the Cheboygan request when it arrives. But Benson has said that the continued efforts to force review ballots are based on false claims.

“Every elected official should be calling this out for what it is: an unscrupulous, un-American effort to perpetuate a lie — the Big Lie,” she said in a statement this week.

Republicans have been divided over the issue. But state GOP spokeswoman Kaitlyn Buss said in a statement this week that the party is “not interested in relitigating the past. This is our formal position.”

Leading Republican legislators have taken a similar stance. Both Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Rep. Ann Bollin, the chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, have stated that Biden won the state.

They have drawn sharp denunciations from those casting doubt on the results: At the rally in Lansing, one speaker called for Shirkey and other Republican leaders to be ousted from office.

Republican strategists fear that Trump’s obsession with relitigating the 2020 election is turning off suburban moderate voters who were once a core part of the Republican base in Michigan and elsewhere.

“We need to be focused on 2022 and 2024,” said the state party’s executive director, Jason Rowe, in an exchange last week with Michigan reporters in which he pushed back against the audit advocates.

A push for new laws

There appears to be consensus among Michigan Republicans about revamping the state’s election rules, an aggressive effort that has alarmed Democrats and voting right activists.

Earlier this year, Senate Republicans in Michigan introduced a 39-bill election reform package that would tighten voter identification rules, absentee ballot requirements and requirements for drop boxes and recounts.

The proposal is part of a wave of voting restrictions being promoted by state Republicans around the country this year.

States across the country are dropping barriers to voting, widening a stark geographic divide in ballot access

“It is a sad package of legislation,” said Dana Nessel, Michigan’s Democratic attorney general, who described it as a way to “deny the voices of voters going to the polls,” a way for Republicans “to circumvent the results when the results are not in their favor.”

Bollin, the Republican chair of the House elections committee, said she has assembled a more modest package of legislation, including some measures with bipartisan backing that she said would restore faith in the electoral system and meet public demands for greater security, including identity checks.

“We have been working together where we can,” Bollin said in an interview, adding that she has reached out to the Democratic secretary of state for suggestions. “The goal is to put good policy on the governor’s desk. Good policy makes sound elections.”

But Benson has registered staunch opposition to the GOP-backed voting measures.

“State lawmakers continue legislating on lies,” the secretary of state said in a statement issued last week. “The bills will do nothing to bolster the extremely strong voter ID laws Michigan already has. Their real goal is reducing voter turnout.”

Whitmer has also indicated that she will try to block new election rules. In an interview, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist called the proposals “non-solutions to problems that don’t exist.”

To get around a likely veto by the governor, Republicans have discussed using a quirk in the state’s ballot initiative process to get the legislation enacted before the 2022 election, according to people familiar with the plans.

Under the Michigan constitution, legislation that begins as a citizen-driven ballot initiative can be passed by a majority in both chambers — and could not be vetoed. Such a measure would first have to collect about 340,000 voter signatures and then could be taken up by the legislature.

The prospect that the maneuver will be used to change voting rules has kicked off what seems likely to be an expensive fight between both parties and their allies.

“We are very alarmed,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, a statewide organization that led the successful effort to create an independent redistricting commission in Michigan a few years ago.

“We are full-bore mobilizing, putting our field team back together to organize a grass-roots organization,” she said, adding: “We expect they will be out there with petitions saying this is for election security. But we will be there educating voters telling them what this is really about: suppressing the vote.”

Some Republicans are joining in the opposition to the legislation.

“I think the intent of these laws are sinister — they are designed to restrict who participates in democracy,” said Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party from 2005 to 2009. “This move screams of a party that has nothing to offer and needs to restrict voters in order to win because they failed as a party to expand their appeal.”

As the political fights have heated up, so have the threats of violence.

“It is vile and, yes, it is increasing,” said Nessel, the attorney general.

Her office is prosecuting 12 defendants in cases related to threats against election officials — included eight people who were charged as part of the Whitmer kidnapping plot. Multiple other cases are under investigation, she said.

To cope with the increasingly tense environment, legislators have been publicly sharing the threats they have received.

Last week, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich said he received a phone message denouncing his refusal to pursue Trump’s claims of fraud.

“This state and this country is going to wake up and you people are going to be gone,” a caller said, according to a recording he released.

A Black state senator from Detroit, Sylvia Santana (D), tweeted a recording of an expletive-laced voice mail that attacked her with a racial epithet for calling Trump’s claims a lie.

“I will not be silenced by the hate of others,” Santana wrote on Twitter. “These despicable actions deserve to be exposed.”