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Suit: Stop Trump campaign from pressuring Michigan elections officials

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Three Detroit voters and a Michigan advocacy group have asked a federal judge to block President Donald Trump or anyone acting on his behalf from pressuring state and local election officials to delay certification of the Nov. 3 election. 

The suit, filed in federal district court in Washington D.C., also seeks an order stopping Trump from pressuring Michigan lawmakers into sending electors whose 16 votes would run contrary to the popular vote. 

In this Nov. 20, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump listens during a news conference in the briefing room at the White House in Washington.

Michigan Welfare Rights Organization filed the suit on behalf of three Black Detroit residents, alleging Trump has been exerting pressure on state canvassers and lawmakers in a way that would block certification of Wayne County's results and disenfranchise Black Detroit voters. 

It alleges the actions are a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act because they constitute intimidation of election officials that would prevent voters from "having such ballots counted properly."

"Defendants' tactics repeat the worst abuses in our nation's history, as Black Americans were denied a voice in American democracy for most of the first two centuries of the Republic," the lawsuit said.

In arguing that Trump specifically targeted majority-Black Detroit, the suit references Trump's tweets alleging fraud at Detroit's absentee counting boards at the TCF Center, his campaign's legal efforts to stop Wayne County certification, the initial deadlock then approval then attempted rescission of the Wayne County certification and his meeting with Michigan lawmakers Friday. 

The group alleged Trump's efforts have focused on other cities with large Black populations as well, including Atlanta, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

"President Trump and his allies have repeatedly made such false allegations of voter fraud, targeting predominately Black cities, and the allegations have been repeatedly debunked," the lawsuit said.

Michigan Welfare Rights Organization is represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The Michigan Board of State Canvassers is scheduled to meet Monday to consider certification of the state's election results, but Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, the Republican National Committee and the Michigan Republican Party have asked the board to delay certification until allegations of ballot irregularities can be fully investigated. 

The state already has said it would conduct an audit in Wayne County, but said it would take place after certification. 

On Saturday, Trump reiterated his unproven claim that there was "massive voter fraud" in Michigan's election on Saturday, a day after he met with Republican lawmakers from the state at the White House.

In Saturday morning tweets, as multiple Michigan lawmakers departed the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., the president responded to a joint statement put out by House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. Their Friday statement suggested the lawmakers used the meeting to focus on COVID-19 relief and not the certification of Michigan's election results.

Chatfield and Shirkey said they have "not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan," which President-elect Joe Biden won by 154,000 votes.

"The candidates who win the most votes win elections and Michigan's electoral votes," Shirkey and Chatfield said in a statement. 

On Saturday night, the president expressed hope that the courts or state legislatures have "the COURAGE to do what has to be done to maintain the integrity of our Elections, and the United States of America itself. THE WORLD IS WATCHING!!!"

Earlier in the week, two Republican Wayne County canvassers signed affidavits saying they regret their votes to certify the Nov. 3 election, arguing that "intense bullying and coercion" plus bad legal advice forced them to agree to certify the election after they had voted no. 

Canvassers Monica Palmer and William Hartmann claimed the promises made to them of a "comprehensive audit" of the Nov. 3 election should they certify "will not be fulfilled." Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced Thursday her office would conduct some local performance audits, but did not say in which jurisdictions.

"Election officials on Tuesday told canvassers that about 70% of the pollbooks for Detroit's absentee counting boards were out of balance and 22% of the city's in-person precincts. 

The votes contributing to the imbalance totaled a few hundred, but are likely to make those precincts ineligible to be used in a recount under state law. 

Imbalanced pollbooks — in which the number of ballots cast does not match the number of voters in pollbooks — is more often a result of clerical error than voter fraud. Detroit had similar imbalances in November 2016 and the August primary, but canvassers still certified while expressing concerns about the inaccuracies.

Additionally, several affidavits have alleged barriers to poll challengers and ballot irregularities at the TCF Center in Detroit, but city election officials have refuted the claims. Wayne County Circuit Court and the state Court of Appeals have denied immediate relief based on the affidavits submitted so far.