Wayne County canvassers, after last-minute reversal, certified election results. What happens now? – MLive.com
Following hours of passionate public comment and national media attention, the two Republicans on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers ultimately changed their minds Tuesday and opted to certify the county’s election results after all.
The board was initially deadlocked Tuesday evening, voting 2-2 along partisan lines on whether to certify the count of 867,409 ballots cast in the county.
Hours after the meeting began and facing claims that their dispute was politically and racially motivated, the two Republicans reconsidered, unanimously certifying the county’s election results with the caveat that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson conduct a comprehensive audit of all the unexplained imbalanced precincts in their jurisdiction.
In past election cycles, the process of verifying Michigan’s election results known as canvassing typically flies under the radar.
But this year, President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden and ongoing litigation have heightened interest in the minutia of Michigan’s elections system, which experts say is well suited to identify and correct errors that arise from a security standpoint.
Confused about what went down in Wayne County last night, or wondering what will happen next? Let’s break it down.
What are canvassing boards, and what do they do?
The task of overseeing voting and ballot counting is shared by more than 1,500 clerks representing local municipalities, making Michigan one of the nation’s most decentralized election administration systems.
But all results are considered unofficial until they’re officially checked and certified, a process known as canvassing.
After votes have been cast and unofficial results have been tallied, local officials in each of Michigan’s 83 counties begin combing through the results to suss out any discrepancies. The canvassing process involves using poll books and voter lists to check computer-generated vote totals and audit for any errors.
Four-person county boards of canvassers are required to review the results in their jurisdiction and vote to certify the results. In statewide elections, those results then get sent to the Michigan Board of State Canvassers, which completes a final review and certifies the results.
Each board is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans who serve four-year terms. At the county level, members are appointed by the county commission. The governor appoints members of the state board, subject to approval by the state Senate.
In a recent interview with MLive, Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons said the canvass is where any irregularities would come to the forefront and be remedied.
“The canvass is, I like to say, kind of the final checks and balance of the process,” Posthumus Lyons said.
She said to her, transparency is the key to making sure elections are safe and secure, from explaining how the process works to allowing election challengers and observers from political parties.
“Michigan’s process, if we follow the election law, really lends itself to integrity,” she said.
Here’s the full process from a vote to certification, as relayed to MLive by several county clerks:
- A voter fills out their ballot and it’s fed into a tabulator machine.
- When the polls close, the machine prints off all the collected results, which includes the number of votes for each candidate and proposal.
- The tabulator also creates a digital version of the results that is kept on digital tape or something similar to a “thumb drive” used for digital storage.
- The precinct chair matches the total number of ballots recorded by the tabulator machine to the number tallied by poll workers.
- The results printout is placed in an envelope, the digital recording is sealed in a bag and both are sent to the county clerk.
- The county creates a report of unofficial results using the digital data, not the printouts. In the case of Antrim County, some of the printout and digital data did not match.
- Before a county certifies results, its Board of Canvassers is required to match the computer-generated totals to the totals reflected on the paper printouts.
- The Board of State Canvassers then reviews the work performed at the county level.
So how did things play out at the Wayne County board meeting?
Board members Monica Palmer and William Hartmann, both Republicans, initially voted against certifying Wayne County’s results, saying they didn’t believe information recorded in Detroit poll books were accurate enough, referring to unbalanced precinct counts in which the number of votes tabulated did not match the number of voters signed in at the polls.
It isn’t the first time out-of-balance precincts have raised concerns in Detroit, as Michigan election law doesn’t allow recounts of precincts where poll books don’t match the number of ballots cast.
But the issue doesn’t mean votes were cast fraudulently – it’s typically an indicator of human error, such as a jammed tabulator or a person signing in to vote and leaving before casting their ballot.
Unbalanced precincts haven’t stopped canvassers from certifying election results with similar issues in recent election cycles. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a partial statewide recount initiated by the Jill Stein campaign uncovered a significant number of unrecountable unbalanced precincts, many of which were in Wayne County. And a canvass of Wayne County’s August 2020 primary results uncovered similar issues, particularly when it came to reconciling absentee precincts.
Most of the unbalanced Wayne County precincts in the November 2020 election reported to the board Tuesday were off by three or four votes. The largest discrepancy of unbalanced votes was in Livonia, where 27 more ballots were counted than what was on record in a precinct.
The initial vote drew praise from the Michigan Republican Party and Trump, but the deadlock didn’t last.
Board members Allen Wilson and Jonathan Kinloch, both Democrats, said their colleagues’ initial votes were politically motivated.
“(Imbalanced precincts) is a normal occurrence, this happens every election cycle and doesn’t prove there was deliberate misconduct during the election,” Wilson said. “Our job is to be objective, and I believe that voting here is fair and represents the will of Wayne County.”
After the board cast its vote, public commenters who tuned into the meeting via Zoom spent hours criticizing Palmer and Hartmann, accusing them of casting politically-motivated votes.
During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, Edith Lee-Payne, who served as a supervisor at the TCF Center, where Detroit’s absentee ballots were counted, emphasized the training that poll workers and volunteers underwent to prepare for the election.
“I marched with Dr. King, I say that with pride,” Lee-Payne said. “What you’re doing to the people of the city of Detroit and Wayne County is just really hurtful. I pray that you change your minds because your integrity is at stake here.”
Is what happened normal?
In a word, no.
While a canvass of election results is designed to dredge up and fix any errors that come up, it’s extremely unusual for a board to deadlock on certifying the results of an election.
No other county canvassing board deadlocked on votes to certify 2020 election results, including Antrim and Oakland counties, where notable errors were detected and corrected in the immediate aftermath of election night. Local and state officials in those counties attributed the initial inaccuracies to human error.
Why is everyone so concerned with Wayne County this cycle?
Wayne County, which leans heavily Democratic and is home to Detroit, has been at the center of a flurry of Republican lawsuits across Michigan seeking to discredit and delay certification of election results that named Biden the winner of Michigan by more than 140,000 votes. None of those lawsuits have won a Michigan court battle yet.
In a recent press call, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said all of the legal challenges filed by the Trump campaign and supporters thus far in Michigan are based on claims that are either “demonstrably false” or have no evidence to back them up.
Nessel has also noted that nearly all of the claims brought to court so far focus on Detroit, a majority Black city, even though other counties where the population is predominately white like Kent and Oakland saw bigger changes in vote totals going to Democrats than Wayne compared to 2016. Biden garnered 94% of the vote in Detroit, while Trump received 5%, an improvement from 3% in 2016.
At about the same time the Wayne County Board of Canvassers broke its stalemate and unanimously certified the results Tuesday, Trump commended the four-member board for their initial deadlock.
“Wow! Michigan just refused to certify the election results!” Trump tweeted Tuesday night, conflating the Wayne County board with the Board of State Canvassers. “Having courage is a beautiful thing. The USA stands proud!”
In a series of follow-up tweets, Trump stated: “Flip Michigan back to TRUMP,” adding unverified claims that Detroit “has tremendous problems” with election results.”
Trump continued tweeting about the situation Wednesday morning, incorrectly claiming that there were “more votes than people” in Detroit and that he won Michigan.
Is Michigan’s election system secure?
Experts consider Michigan’s elections system one of the most secure in the country due to the many checks and balances that occur before and after votes are certified.
A verifiable paper trail of every ballot cast, in addition to recent investments updating the state’s ballot-counting equipment around the state, makes Michigan an outlier when it comes to election security, said J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan and co-chair of the state’s Election Security Advisory Commission.
If a statewide recount is not called, Halderman said the state of Michigan is prepared to conduct a manual risk-limiting audit of the presidential election, “just to make sure that nothing has been affected by any kind of hacking or computer error that could change the result.”
“My overall assessment is that Michigan is actually one of the best-protected states in terms of election security,” he said.
In a recent interview with MLive, Benson said there are multiple levels of security protocols in place from ballot intake on up to ensure votes are properly counted and any errors are caught.
The decentralized nature of Michigan’s elections “do lend themselves to a more secure process,” Benson said, because it makes it much harder for bad actors to impact the entire state.
“Because voting is so localized, voters are working directly with someone in their community to ensure their votes get in, their votes are counted,” Benson said. “And then you have the county level, and then the state level to provide… uniform protocols to ensure a level of equality exists, also, throughout the state.”
Instances of human error do occur and should be anticipated in every election cycle, Iowa University Professor Douglas W. Jones recently told MLive, but he said some of the errors that occurred in Michigan’s 2020 general election cycle could have been avoided with better programming by the election software companies.
What happens now?
Now that the election results have been certified by every county, the Board of State Canvassers has the final say.
The board is scheduled to meet Nov. 23 to certify the statewide totals. Late Tuesday afternoon, the Board of State Canvassers also scheduled another meeting for 9 a.m. Wednesday to discuss an “update on the canvass.” That meeting was then delayed to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, then canceled after Wayne County delivered its certification. All 83 Michigan counties have now certified their election results, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Norm Shinkle, a former state lawmaker and one of the Board of State Canvassers’ two Republicans, said last week the aftermath of the 2020 election is “totally different than what we’re used to.” He said he’s holding off on making a decision on whether he’ll vote to certify the results until he gets more detailed reports from election officials and affected parties.
“You can’t make up your mind until you hear both sides,” he said. “So I don’t know how that’s going to turn out. But we are set to meet on Monday the 23rd, and I’m assuming that we’re going to meet and all four of us will make a vote, and hopefully, we do the right thing.”
If the board denies certification or deadlocks along partisan lines, the ultimate decision would wind up in court, Shinkle said.
MLive reporters Emily Lawler and Zahra Ahmad contributed to this report.