President Donald Trump is making an unprecedented effort to interfere with the mechanics of electoral democracy in the United States by trying to block the certification of results in states Joe Biden won.
The most blatant move in this direction so far has been in Wayne County, Michigan, where two Republicans on the heavily Democratic county’s four-person board of canvassers briefly blocked the vote totals from being certified Tuesday, before backing down a few hours later.
Now, Zeke Miller, Christina Cassidy, and Colleen Long of the Associated Press report that Trump “reached out to” those two Michigan Republicans after they backed down, purportedly to thank them for their support. And lo and behold, the pair have now signed affidavits saying they want to rescind the certification of Wayne County’s results.
The county results have already been certified, so it doesn’t seem that that can be overturned at this point. But the next step in this saga is that Michigan must certify its statewide results on Monday — and the entity charged with doing that is another four-person board with two Democrats and two Republicans.
If the statewide board certifies Biden’s win, then Trump’s effort to overturn the election will have failed in Michigan. But if the state board deadlocks like the Wayne County board did, it would throw into question the matter of whether Biden will get Michigan’s 16 electoral votes. (That would not in itself be enough to deprive Biden of the 270 electoral votes he needs to win; Trump would have to overturn the outcome in at least two other states as well.)
Furthermore, the state board may not be the final word. Democrats would certainly go to court, and Michigan’s Democratic governor, secretary of state, and attorney general will surely do what they can to prevent the election from being stolen for Trump. But with such little precedent for something like this happening, it’s difficult to say how it would turn out.
Meanwhile, Craig Mauger of the Detroit News reports that the Republican leaders of both chambers of Michigan’s state legislature are expected to meet with Trump in Washington on Friday. So far, Michigan’s state Senate majority leader, Mike Shirkey, has spurned Trump’s hopes that the legislature would step in and try to award the state’s electoral votes to Trump instead of Biden. But clearly, the presidential pressure is on.
Biden clearly won Michigan. Republicans are playing partisan games with certification anyway.
Except in extraordinarily close races where there’s solid evidence that malfeasance occurred, certification of vote results should just be a formality: The person with the most votes wins.
However, Trump has been trying to weaponize this process by spreading baseless claims of election fraud, and urging either judges or partisan Republicans involved in the process to delay or block certification even though it’s clear Biden won — thereby defying the will of the voters.
The outcome in Michigan is not genuinely in question. Indeed, it’s the least close of all the swing states Biden won. Trump trails by about 156,000 votes, a 2.8 percent margin. It is not even remotely plausible that a margin like that is due to fraud.
But in Wayne County (Michigan’s most populous county, which includes the mostly Black city of Detroit), Republican canvassers Monica Palmer and William Hartmann initially voted against certifying the results this Tuesday, deadlocking the county’s board of canvassers, two to two.
Palmer and Hartmann’s stated reason was that there were discrepancies between precincts’ counts of how many named people voted and the actual count of votes. This is known as precincts being “out of balance.”
But though many precincts were out of balance, the discrepancies were usually very small. “Most of the unbalanced Wayne County precincts reported to the board Tuesday were off by three or four votes,” Zahra Ahmad and Lauren Gibbons of MLive reported. Small mistakes like that suggest clerical error rather than a massive fraud scheme — and certainly they don’t add up to anything close to Biden’s lead in the state.
It was lost on few that the two Republicans who voted against certification are white and were alleging problems in the mostly Black city of Detroit. Indeed, Palmer even suggested that all of Wayne County’s results except for Detroit could be certified — even though the most out-of-balance precinct, with a 27-vote discrepancy, was in the mostly white city of Livonia. “Shame on you. You are a disgrace,” the president of Detroit’s NAACP chapter, Wendell Anthony, said over Zoom at the meeting.
Furthermore, once the news went viral nationally, reporters discovered that Hartmann had posted racist memes mocking President Obama on his public Facebook page. He had also repeatedly posted on his public Facebook several times suggesting that the election wasn’t over yet and that there was “more to come.” Additionally, Hartmann posted links from right-wing conspiracy sites, and several months ago he retweeted President Trump saying that mail voting is “RIPE for FRAUD” and “shouldn’t be allowed.”
Though Trump publicly cheered the news as a win for his campaign, after a few hours of intense backlash, Palmer and Hartmann backed down, agreeing to certify Wayne County’s results alongside a recommendation that Michigan’s secretary of state conduct an audit. But after that, the Associated Press reports, President Trump reached out to them. And now, they have both signed affidavits stating that they want to rescind their votes to certify.
Look to the state board of canvassers for what will happen next
Trump’s team is claiming that Wayne County has rescinded certification, but that is false. And in any case, it doesn’t really matter what the Wayne County GOP canvassers do at this point; the county already certified its results, and certification is now in the hands of the state. (This would also have happened if Hartmann and Palmer had held firm initially in refusing to certify Wayne County’s results — the state would have had an opportunity to certify them.)
The next step in the certification process, though, is for Michigan’s statewide board of canvassers to decide whether to certify the state’s results on Monday. If they do, it would effectively be the end of the road for Trump’s effort to overturn the outcome in Michigan. (The Republican state Senate majority leader has said the legislature will not try to replace Biden electors with Trump electors — though he and his state House counterpart have now been summoned to meet with Trump this Friday.)
However, that state board once again is composed of two Democrats and two Republicans. So it is highly likely that Republicans on that board are facing pressure to go along with Trump’s wishes as well.
One Republican on the board, Aaron Van Langevelde, is a lawyer for Michigan state House Republicans. He does not appear to have commented on the process.
The second Republican, Norm Shinkle, has been more loquacious. In fact, Shinkle’s wife is a witness in a federal lawsuit the Trump campaign filed alleging improper election practices in Detroit. “She saw a lot of strange things going on,” Shinkle told Jonathan Oosting of Bridge Michigan last week. But he stressed he would “hear both sides before I make a decision.”
The state board may not have the last word. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Attorney General Dana Nessel are all Democrats and would not idly stand by while Republicans try to steal Michigan’s electoral votes from Joe Biden. There would be lawsuits. But it’s not yet clear how those lawsuits would play out.
Overall, even if Republicans somehow manage to block Biden from getting Michigan’s electoral votes, Biden still has more than enough electoral votes to become president if other states remain on track with certification. Trump would have to overturn the outcome in at least two other states to prevent Biden from getting 270 electoral votes.
But none of this instills confidence in how an even closer race would have played out. It’s clear that President Trump does not respect the electoral process if it results in him losing. And there are ominous signs that a significant faction of the Republican Party is right there with him.