The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Board in key Michigan county fails, then agrees, to certify vote totals by deadline

Supporters of President Trump gather to protest the election results at the Michigan Capitol building in Lansing on Nov. 7. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

DETROIT — At first, it seemed like a win for President Trump's supporters: The Wayne County Board of Canvassers deadlocked Tuesday night over whether to certify the results of the presidential election in the populous Democratic county, punting the question to a state regulatory board.

In a tweet, Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis called it a “huge win” for the president, who has not conceded the presidential race and who has made false accusations of voter fraud.

But hours later, the board — composed of two Republicans and two Democrats — reversed itself, unanimously agreeing to certify the results and ask the secretary of state to conduct an independent audit. The about-face left Democrats and voting rights advocates cheering.

"I feel elated; I feel like we did the right thing," said Allen Wilson, one of the board's Democratic members, as he tried to catch his breath following the late-night twist to the local bureaucratic meeting.

The agreement came after two hours of emotional testimony, primarily from those who wanted to see the results certified, and objections from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and others nationally.

“I appreciate putting our heads together to come to a solution,” Republican board chairwoman Monica Palmer said after the second vote.

The Post's Ashley Parker explains why some Republicans followed President Trump's lead in denying the reality of the election and the danger they're posing. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump’s false claims about widespread fraud have reverberated with his supporters, putting white-hot attention on the usually mundane vote certification process across Michigan.

Ellis said on Fox News late Tuesday that Michigan needed to stand up for voting integrity and not bend to threats.

“That two-hour time period” between the first vote and the final decision to certify “is significant,” she said. In that period, she claimed, the GOP board members “were accused of racism and they were threatened … that’s when they backed off.”

She continued: “The president is right that these people need to have courage and the state of Michigan should not certify these false results.”

While state Democrats say Trump has no hope of overturning Biden’s wide lead in the state, they had expressed anxiety in recent weeks that Republican legislators might not only try to hold up certification in Wayne County but also seek to use a dubious interpretation of state law to appoint their own electors, leading the state to back Trump in the electoral college. That strategy has been scoffed at by legal experts.

“By indulging partisan conspiracy theories and debunked claims of fraud, legislative Republicans are eroding our citizens’ faith in our democratic institutions,” Christine Greig, the Michigan House Democratic leader, said in an interview Monday. “Stubborn refusal to acknowledge the election result flies in the face of the oath that each of us swore when we assumed our offices in the Michigan Legislature. It all needs to stop.”

Republican leaders in the legislature have tried in recent days to assuage fears that such a move could gain traction. The Republican Senate leader said just before the vote Tuesday that Biden won Michigan and the legislature won’t interfere — despite requests from Trump loyalists.

“That’s not going to happen,” Mike Shirkey told the publication Bridge Michigan.

“We are going to follow the law and follow the process,” he said. “I do believe there’s reason to go slow and deliberate as we evaluate the allegations that have been raised.”

But the decision provoked outrage among Democrats and activists in Detroit, and others who said it was no coincidence that Trump’s complaints about voting practices have centered on Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta — all heavily Black cities.

“Black folks spoke up about Donald Trump’s behavior and cast a vote against him,” said Branden Snyder, the executive director for grass-roots organization Detroit Action, of the Black turnout in the Detroit area that bolstered Biden’s victory.

Knowing the role Black voters would play in this election, Snyder says they also fully anticipated that the Trump campaign would in some way seek to suppress their votes.

“We knew that there were going to be the racist dog whistles that we hear right now about the validity of Detroit voters,” said Snyder, whose organization spent the last four years mobilizing voters in the nation’s largest majority Black city. “It really feeds into . . . the deep and steeped white supremacy that both the Trump campaign has been running on, but also, unfortunately, the deep-seated racist and racial history that exists in metro Detroit.”

Retired Democratic U.S. senator Carl Levin said the Republican complaints about the vote process recalled an ugly history of racist and anti-immigrant attitudes.

“The Republican complaints smacked, as they so often do, of an anti-big-city bias,” he said.

The first decision came after an hour-long meeting Tuesday evening. Democratic board members Jonathan Kinloch and Wilson voted “emphatically” in favor of certifying the results, with Republican members Palmer and William Hartmann voting against the motion to certify.

Kinloch said there was “no reason under the sun” not to certify and called the actions “reckless and irresponsible.”

“I was downtrodden, because we sort of figured . . . that perhaps Trumpism, and I hate to say that, but Trumpism and the Republicans had filled the ears of our two comrades in there,” Wilson said, explaining that they’ve all had a good working relationship in the past. “Normally we can talk with each other. But somehow when I came in the room today the aura was not the same.”

Palmer said that her reason for voting no was based on problems she has seen, saying, “I believe we do not have complete and accurate information in those poll books.”

Palmer initially said she would be willing to certify other communities in Wayne County other than Detroit.

Among those who spoke during the public comment period was Jennifer Redmond, the deputy chair of elections from Wayne County. She choked up as she addressed the board about their decision not to certify the election results. Redmond recounted how she and her staff have worked 16 hours a day to certify the results for the counties, involving more than 1,100 precincts where 878,000 ballots were cast, to meet a nearly impossible two-week deadline.

“We have been here tirelessly,” Redmond said, calling it a “slap in the face” for the board members not to certify the results, particularly after the staff worked though a pandemic in which cases are spiking across the state. The staff, largely made up of middle-aged and 20-something Black men and women, looked on in silence with their arms crossed as they watched the unprecedented move not to approve the results.

After the vote, there was an overwhelming response at the meeting — and beyond. The two Republicans on the panel found themselves under verbal assault, accused of racism, violating their public obligations and attempting to hijack what even GOP leaders in Lansing said were the clear results of the election.

The excoriation of the Republican members came from people at the meeting, but also from the governor, the Michigan House minority leader and election experts around the country.

“I believe as things went on that the Republicans were looking for a way out,” said an experienced Michigan election lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. Then a Democratic member of the board proposed a compromise — that the 2020 vote be certified and that an audit of the Detroit vote follow.

The Trump campaign is continuing to press its case to try to block certification of the vote, despite multiple legal setbacks. On Monday, Michigan’s Court of Appeals ruled against two Republican poll watchers, days after a lower court judge had rejected their request to halt certification, saying he saw no convincing evidence of election fraud at the center where workers tallied absentee ballots.

A similar suit filed by the Trump campaign in federal court Tuesday is still pending. As part of it, the campaign filed 238 pages of affidavits from Republican poll watchers across Michigan. They contained no evidence of significant fraud, but included complaints about rude behavior or unpleasant looks from poll workers or Democratic poll watchers.

In poll watcher affidavits, Trump campaign offers no evidence of fraud in Detroit ballot-counting

The focus on Wayne County’s vote — which effectively put Biden over the top in Michigan — has put a spotlight on the usually anonymous officials in charge of certifying votes.

The 83 county canvassing boards in the state are required by law to report certified numbers to the state canvassing board, which will meet Monday to begin its process. It is made up of two Republicans and two Democrats.

Each county board is also composed of two Democrats and two Republicans, appointed by their parties for staggered four-year terms. Before they certify the results, the boards spend two weeks reviewing poll books and vote totals and resolving any discrepancies that need to be corrected. The main task: to check whether the number of votes reported by the voting machines in each precinct match the number of voters recorded in poll books.

Tuesday’s flare-up was a sign of the unusual tension that has marked this year’s canvassing process.

“I’ve been doing voter protection since 2008. I’ve never, ever seen any of this. Ever,” said Alec Gibbs, a Flint attorney who does voter protection work for the Genesee County Democratic Party. “We had no reason to believe that county canvassing boards would become flash points.”