The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Michigan’s top election official and Dominion warn counties about the risks of vote audits by outside groups

Supporters of President Donald Trump gather in front of the Michigan Capitol on Jan. 6 to protest the results of November's election. (Nick Hagen for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Michigan’s top election official and the company whose voting equipment has been the subject of baseless claims of fraud are cautioning local governments in the state that outside audits of the 2020 election results like the one underway in Maricopa County, Ariz., would be illegal and would void the machines’ security warranties.

The warnings come amid a growing campaign by former president Donald Trump and his supporters to pressure county governments to launch audits reviewing ballots cast in the last presidential election, which they claim without evidence was tainted by large-scale fraud and votes manipulated on equipment purchased from Dominion Voting Systems.

The Arizona recount, which has been denounced by election experts as unprofessional and insecure, is being touted as an inspiration by small cohorts of angry residents across the country. State leaders, Dominion officials and local residents are now trying to block such examinations sought by activists in several Michigan counties.

In letters sent to the Cheboygan and Antrim county clerks last week, the office of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said the county boards have “no authority” to order audits — and instructed election clerks not to provide access to unaccredited outside parties to conduct them.

“Interest in granting access to unqualified third parties to conduct a ‘forensic audit’ may stem from misplaced reliance on ongoing misinformation, which has been repeatedly, comprehensively, and definitively debunked,” wrote Jonathan Brater, director of the Michigan Bureau of Elections, in a letter to Cheboygan County Clerk Karen Brewster.

In a separate letter to all Michigan counties that use its equipment, Dominion warned that transferring machines to unaccredited auditors could void licensing agreements and render the equipment “unqualified for official use.”

The letter also warned that restoring certification to machines examined by third parties could be costly — and that cost would fall on local governments.

“Remember, your voting system is deemed critical infrastructure by the U.S. government and should be utilized, maintained and protected as such,” states the letter, which was sent in early May. “Chain of custody breaches may require a separate forensic audit and software reinstallation by an accredited lab.”

Last week, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs advised Maricopa County officials that it should replace all voting machines that were turned over to a private contractor for the ongoing audit there, citing “grave concerns regarding the security and integrity” of the machines that make them unusable for future elections.

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

In Michigan, calls for outside audits have grown loudest in Antrim and Cheboygan. In Antrim, an initial reporting error of election results in November — which temporarily showed a lead by Democrat Joe Biden over Trump despite the county’s heavy Republican lean — prompted widespread claims that Dominion machines had “flipped” votes from Trump to Biden. After human error was discovered and the count was adjusted, an audit of the vote showed that Dominion machines tabulated ballots accurately. Last week, a judge dismissed a lawsuit from activists seeking to conduct their own audit.

Despite that, the false claims have spread to other counties.

In Cheboygan, county commissioners established an election integrity subcommittee to examine accusations that machines that flipped votes in Antrim could have done so there as well.

At a public meeting earlier this month, Stefanie Lambert, a lawyer from Detroit, offered to send in a “forensic team,” at no charge to the county, to inspect ballots and scanners.

Lambert has not responded to requests for comment. Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, has sought sanctions against Lambert for her role in a Trump campaign lawsuit last year seeking to overturn the election results that was dismissed by a federal judge.

Several members of the all-Republican Cheboygan County Board of Commissioners said Tuesday that the examination is still in its early stages and they have made no decision yet on whether to take Lambert up on her offer.

“The whole purpose of this subcommittee is to clear the mud,” said Commissioner Ron Williams. “I hope that’s what we’re doing.” He said the board met with the county’s attorneys on Friday but declined to discuss the closed-door discussion, saying only, “I’m not going to violate the law.”

During their public board meeting Tuesday, commissioners were inundated with a deluge of rebukes from county residents who defended the integrity of the election. Many were Democrats and noted that Cheboygan’s overwhelming vote for Trump — he won 10,186 to Biden’s 5,437 — should serve as ample evidence that the election was not rigged.

“If Cheboygan County is going to get on the map, I hope it’s not for a red herring like this that is proposed by some supposed patriots and people who are falsely concerned about our election integrity,” said resident Allen Moberly.

Another resident, Rob Ross, who said he served as an election worker last year, added: “Every commissioner here might be a Republican, but anybody who votes to do this kind of thing is not an American. This is an un-American, unrealistic piece of political prejudice and propaganda. It is not about doing anything real.”

Some residents spoke in favor of the audit, offering unsubstantiated accusations to justify such a move. One woman said those who oppose the audit are against it because they do not believe someone from outside Dominion should examine the company’s machines, a stance she called “ridiculous.”

In fact, critics of the proposed audit have taken issue only with giving unaccredited private figures and groups who promote false claims about the election access to the county’s machines.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.