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In reversal, GOP officials in key Michigan county certify ballot count after striking a compromise with Democrats

Despite being short-staffed, overworked and receiving criticism from the president, poll officials were transparent throughout the process. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Spencer Platt/The Washington Post)
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Republican appointees on a key board in Michigan’s most populous county Tuesday night reversed their initial refusal to certify the vote tallies in the Detroit area, striking a last-minute compromise with Democrats that defused a political fight over the process to formalize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the state.

The unexpected twist came after the four-member Wayne County Board of Canvassers had deadlocked on the day of the deadline for Michigan counties to certify the vote — a move President Trump celebrated on Twitter as “a beautiful thing.”

The Trump campaign has alleged irregularities in the vote count in the county seat of Detroit, accusations city officials have vigorously denied. Democrats accused GOP officials of seeking to disenfranchise voters in the majority-Black city of Detroit.

State Democrats say Trump has no hope of overturning Biden’s 148,000-vote lead.

Trump supporters had urged Michigan’s majority-Republican state legislature to try to appoint its own electors if the state canvassing board, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, failed to certify the vote before the electoral college meets in December.

“If the state board follows suit, the Republican state legislator will select the electors. Huge win for @realDonaldTrump,” Trump campaign legal adviser Jenna Ellis tweeted Tuesday night after the initial Wayne County deadlock.

But experts said such a move would have been on shaky legal ground, and key GOP lawmakers have acknowledged Biden’s win and said they do not plan to attempt to intervene.

After the initial deadlock in Wayne County was met with an outpouring of condemnation, the board recessed Tuesday night and returned with a new agreement to certify the results, along with a request that the secretary of state’s office conduct a comprehensive audit of the vote tallies.

Republican board Chair Monica Palmer, who initially said that she did not “have faith that the poll books are complete and accurate,” said the compromise addressed her concerns.

“I appreciate putting our heads together to come to a solution,” Palmer said.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in an interview on CNN that “it appears that the truth won in this scenario.”

“The evidence is clear — there were no irregularities, there was no evidence of widespread fraud, and in fact there were simply minor clerical errors,” she said, adding: “So I think they did the right thing, they performed their duty, and they certified the election for the voters in Wayne County.”

On Fox News late Tuesday, Ellis decried the board’s change of heart as “mob rule.”

The initial refusal of the Wayne County GOP officials to certify the vote drew outrage from Democrats, who said the Republicans were playing politics with the vote, and emotional objections from local election officials, who noted their staff have worked 16 hours a day for the past two weeks to certify the results.

“We have been here tirelessly,” said Jennifer Redmond, the deputy director of elections for Wayne County, calling the move a “slap in the face.”

The reversal in Michigan came as the Trump campaign has faced a string of failures in its beleaguered effort to overturn the result of the election through the courts. In the latest defeat on Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the campaign’s claim that GOP observers did not have sufficient access to the vote count, underscoring how the president’s claims of voting irregularities have repeatedly run aground before judges.

Meanwhile, in Nevada, the campaign filed a challenge to the state’s election results, asking a state court in Carson City to declare Trump the winner of Nevada’s six presidential electors or to annul the election entirely, meaning no winner would be certified from Nevada. Multiple lawsuits seeking to block or delay vote-counting in Democratic-leaning Clark County have been rejected in recent weeks by judges who said the campaign had presented little or no evidence to back up claims of wrongdoing and fraud.

Even as the president’s allies frantically raced to roll out more allegations around the country, multiple people close to the campaign acknowledged there was little evidence to support the assertions and bemoaned the ascension of Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has sidelined other legal advisers.

Giuliani, who speaks with Trump several times a day, has convinced him his odds are better than other campaign officials believe, according to two people familiar with the situation, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations.

There is a grim sense “that this is going to end quickly and badly,” one official said.

During an appearance in federal court in Pennsylvania on Tuesday afternoon, Giuliani made broad unsubstantiated allegations about “widespread nationwide voter fraud,” yet conceded that Trump’s team was not alleging fraud as a matter of law. Giuliani’s uneven remarks were met with derision by an attorney for the state, who questioned whether the former New York mayor understood basic legal procedures.

He also faced sharp questioning from District Judge Matthew W. Brann, an appointee of President Barack Obama, who is hearing the recently narrowed case from the Trump campaign alleging that different procedures for voters to correct errors on their ballots across the state violated some voters’ rights.

Giuliani applied Tuesday to represent the Trump campaign in the suit, which aims to block the state from certifying election results. Four other attorneys have withdrawn since the campaign filed its lawsuit on Nov. 9, and a fifth has applied to pull out of the case.

In the hearing before Brann, Giuliani painted a dark picture of an election thoroughly infected by voter fraud, even as he also acknowledged the lawsuit did not make those allegations as a matter of law. Giuliani also admitted the complaint had been narrowed to exclude claims about insufficient access for GOP poll watchers, reversing himself from Sunday night.

“As far as we’re concerned, your honor, those ballots could’ve been from Mickey Mouse,” Giuliani said of votes cast by mail in Pennsylvania.

Brann expressed skepticism in a back-and-forth with Giuliani and another lawyer for the Trump campaign but indicated he planned to rule later.

“You’re alleging that the two individual plaintiffs were denied the right to vote. But at bottom, you’re asking this court to invalidate more than 6.8 million votes, thereby disenfranchising every single voter in the Commonwealth. Can you tell me how this result can possibly be justified?” he asked.

The argument marked Giuliani’s most direct involvement yet in Trump’s post-election litigation. A federal prosecutor during the 1980s, he won plaudits for securing convictions of major mob figures. But according to the federal court system’s public records system, he last entered an appearance in a federal case in 1992. In a text message, Giuliani estimated that it had been “four or five years” since he tried a case in court.

Referring to the withdrawal of former Trump attorneys in Pennsylvania, an official said, “Rudy wants to make arguments in court that other lawyers are not willing to make. It’s not that they weren’t willing to represent us. When they intersect with Rudy’s world, they don’t want to make those arguments that Rudy wants to make.”

Two campaign officials said Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, attorney Justin Clark and others were barely involved anymore in the legal fight, with it all being “Rudy all the time,” in the words of one.

“Rudy is calling the shots, and we are following,” one senior Republican involved in the campaign said. “I wouldn’t have organized it this way, but that’s the way the president wants it.”

One Republican lawyer close to the campaign said they too quickly jumped to accusations without proof of fraud and instead should have asked for examinations in states to glean evidence first.

This Republican said the campaign also should have engaged higher-power lawyers earlier on, instead of hiring “TV show lawyers.”

“The lawyers on the outside, none of them are supportive of the Rudy strategy,” this person said. “Rudy is not advancing the cause of the law.”

Giuliani is seeking to orchestrate a large news conference at the RNC headquarters on Capitol Hill for later this week, but Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel is unlikely to attend, officials said. He is working with Boris Epshteyn, who in between stints as a campaign aide worked as a Sinclair TV commentator and appeared with him in court on Tuesday.

The former mayor has sought a rate of $2,000 an hour, as the New York Times first reported, and said he would work on the matter about 10 hours a day, one campaign official said.

“I’m not even sure the campaign has agreed to pay him anything at this point,” the official said. “That’s what he asked for.”

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday reversed a lower court’s ruling that Philadelphia had violated state law by not giving Republican poll watchers sufficient access to observe the vote count in days following the Nov. 3 election.

In the majority opinion, the state justices ruled that the Philadelphia canvassing board broke no laws in setting up boundaries for observers in a counting space that was set up to preserve ballot security while also allowing for social distancing because of coronavirus concerns.

State law “requires only that an authorized representative ‘be permitted to remain in the room in which the absentee ballots and mail-in ballots are pre-canvassed,’ ” states the opinion, signed by five justices.

Even the Supreme Court’s two dissenters on Tuesday, who argued that Philadelphia had not followed state law, wrote that their finding should not invalidate all votes counted in the facility.

“Short of demonstrated fraud, the notion that presumptively valid ballots cast by the Pennsylvania electorate would be disregarded based on isolated procedural irregularities that have been redressed — thus disenfranchising potentially thousands of voters — is misguided,” the dissent states.

As the Trump campaign seeks to bolster its position in court two weeks after the election, it is running up against deadlines in several states.

Counties in Pennsylvania must certify their results by close of business Monday, leaving less than a week for the campaign to advance lawsuits that seek to delay the process or invalidate certain ballots.

In Wisconsin, all 72 counties completed canvasses of local election results, a spokesman for the state elections commission said Tuesday. Following the canvasses, Biden led Trump in Wisconsin by 20,608 votes, or about 0.6 percent, according to the Associated Press. Given that the margin separating the two candidates is less than 1 percent, Wisconsin law now allows for Trump to request a recount.

However, state law requires that the request be made no later than the end of Wednesday and that the Trump campaign must submit payment up front to cover the costs of the process if it wishes to proceed — which the state has pegged at $7.9 million for a statewide recount.

The campaign could also pay less and request a recount only in selected counties — but that would reduce the already slim chances that a recount would change enough votes to change the outcome of the state’s vote. Ellis, the Trump campaign legal adviser, said Tuesday that the campaign was keeping “all legal options” open in Wisconsin — but did not specifically commit to requesting the recount.

In Arizona’s most populous county, a Republican-led pressure campaign intensified with calls for a recount of every vote by hand before finalizing the election results. But the GOP-dominated Maricopa County Board of Supervisors intends to move ahead to meet a Monday deadline, said spokesman Fields Moseley.

“Right now, all the evidence points to a completely accurate and fair election,” Moseley said, after a deluge of phone calls to supervisors this weekend. “That’s where the board is on this.”

In Nevada, where results will not be final until Nov. 24, Republicans have filed several new suits this week.

Trump campaign lawyer Jesse Binnall announced the challenge to the state’s election results on Tuesday, claiming that the president “won the state of Nevada after you account for the fraud and irregularities that occurred in the election.”

Republican activist and former Senate candidate Sharron Angle revived a suit from before Nov. 3 and is now seeking to block certification of the statewide results and hold an entirely new election. The original suit sought unsuccessfully to block the expansion of mail voting in the state.

Finally, Republican state Senate candidate April Becker sued Clark County and its registrar of voters in state court, asking a judge to order a new election in her race because of alleged widespread irregularities. Becker lost her race against Democrat Nicole Cannizzaro by 631 votes.

State and local officials in Nevada, as well as outside experts, say there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud or irregularities affecting the Nov. 3 election.

Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin said Tuesday evening that county officials had not yet seen the complaint, but, he added, “it sounds like they are repeating allegations the courts have already rejected, misstating and misrepresenting evidence provided in those proceedings, and parroting erroneous allegations made by partisans without firsthand knowledge of the facts.”

Ruble reported from Detroit. Tom Hamburger in Detroit and David A. Fahrenthold, Hannah Knowles, Emma Brown, Amy Gardner, Rosalind S. Helderman, Keith Newell, Aaron Schaffer and Maya Smith in Washington contributed to this report.