GOP canvassers try to rescind votes to certify Wayne County election

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Two Republican Wayne County canvassers have signed affidavits saying they regret their votes Tuesday 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 have 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.

"I rescind my prior vote to certify Wayne County elections," Palmer said in an affidavit signed Wednesday night. "I fully believe the Wayne County vote should not be certified."

From left: Member William Hartmann (Rep.), chair person Monica Palmer (Rep.) listen as vice chair Jonathan Kinloch (Dem.) reads the motion to certify the vote with member Allen Wilson (Dem.) during the Wayne County Board of Canvassers meet in Detroit on Nov. 17, 2020.

It's not clear whether the affidavits have any legal effect on Tuesday's certification, which moved Wayne County's results on to the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers. Even if Palmer and Hartmann were able to rescind their votes, the deadline for Wayne County to certify its results has already passed, in which case any uncertified results would pass on to the state board.

State law sets a deadline of 14 days for every county to certify its election votes and Wayne County's 14-day clock expired Wednesday. 

"There is no legal mechanism for them to rescind their vote," said Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for Benson. "Their job is done, and the next step in the process is for the Board of State Canvassers to meet and certify."

In a Thursday statement, Benson said she would conduct a statewide risk-limiting audit of the Nov. 3 election and local performance audits of some jurisdictions. 

Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing said the action "underscores the lengths the Rs will go to in undermining our democracy."

"Voters in MI chose Joe Biden to be our next president by 150,000 votes in a fair & transparent election," Stabenow said in a tweet. "It’s time to move on."

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat who represents part of Wayne County, was livid Thursday at what she called an attempt to “steal” the election from Biden.

She questioned why the Wayne GOP canvassers would suggest excluding majority-Black Detroit from the election certification when majority-white Livonia had more out of balance precincts than Detroit did. “It’s very hard not to call this racist to boot,” Dingell said.

Board Vice Chairman Jonathan Kinloch, a Democrat, said the affidavits have no meaning, given that the deadline for certifying results in Wayne County has passed. Further, he said, all members of the board approved a motion to waive additional consideration after the certification vote, cementing their decisions.

“These individuals are acting like they’ve never participated in a certification before,” Kinloch said. “It’s a wasted attempt to unravel a lawful vote in order to calm the Republican rancor we all knew was going to occur after they left the meeting.”

He said he still intends to ask Benson for an audit, but the board was given no guarantees one would be authorized as a result of the vote.

“We have not even asked,” he said. “I never said the secretary of state agreed to it. I spoke to no one in the Secretary of the State or Bureau of Elections. I told them (Hartmann and Palmer) that.”

The Board of State Canvassers is scheduled to meet Monday.

For subscribers:Meet party insiders charged with certifying Michigan's election results

State canvasser Norm Shinkle, a Republican, told The Detroit News Wednesday he also plans to request an audit of the Nov. 3 election prior to state certification.

President Donald Trump has falsely claimed he won Michigan even though unofficial certified results from the 83 counties show Democratic President-elect Joe Biden winning 51%-48% or by 154,000 votes. Trump has refused to concede and is pursuing lawsuits to stop the certification of votes in state and federal courts.

The affidavits in the lawsuits have largely been refuted by the Michigan Secretary of State's office; former state elections director Chris Thomas, who helped with absentee ballot counting in Detroit; and other Detroit elections staff. The state courts have rejected the Trump campaign's arguments, and federal judges have not rushed to jump into the matter.

On Tuesday night, Trump contacted Palmer and Hartmann after the revised vote to express his gratitude, the Associated Press reported Thursday, citing an unnamed source. The two Republican canvassers signed the affidavits on Wednesday.

Palmer said Thursday she's unsure what the outcome of the affidavits will be but felt compelled to put the information on the record. She said she's reported threatening messages prompted by Tuesday night's meeting to law enforcement since Wednesday morning. 

Palmer said her decision not to certify was based "strictly on what was in the canvassing results," which she felt lacked complete and accurate documentation. Not enough had been done between the August primary and Nov. 3 election to fix the city's unbalanced poll books, she said. 

"We saw the same problems that we saw in the primary," Palmer said. "Everybody says that’s just how Detroit elections run. That doesn’t make it right.”

The late night release of the affidavits was followed by an early morning tweet from President Donald Trump: 

Detroit has become a regular epicenter of voting irregularities for 15 years that haven't resulted in widespread voter fraud but have raised questions about the counting of ballots. The issues have included outdated voter rolls, special deliveries of absentee ballots, obsolete equipment and mismatched poll book numbers.

While Detroit has struggled with election issues, experts saidthe unbalanced poll books referenced by canvassers Tuesday — which also were bigger issues in the 2016 general election and August primary — are not proof of voter fraud and are more a result of human error. 

The affidavits follow a long, roller coaster meeting Tuesday, where canvassers were told that 70% of Detroit's 134 absentee counting boards were out of balance by one to more than four votes. 

During Tuesday's meeting, an elections official said countywide, the precincts were out of balance by a few hundred votes in a county that saw 878,000 votes total on Nov. 3. The Democratic stronghold county backed Biden over Trump 68%-31%.

Based on the findings, Palmer and Hartmann voted against certifying Wayne County's election results, deadlocking with their Democratic colleagues 2-2. 

The move prompted condemnation from Democratic canvassers Jonathan Kinloch and Allen Wilson and hours of public comment condemning the deadlocked vote as politically motivated and racist, since Detroit is a majority-Black city. 

Palmer and Hartmann eventually voted again to certify the results on the condition that a comprehensive audit be conducted on the Wayne County results. 

In their affidavits Wednesday, Palmer and Hartmann alleged the public comments included threats against their families and that personal information was leaked in the hours after their decision. 

Wayne County counsel advised them they had to vote that night and that their vote was purely "ministerial," Palmer and Hartmann alleged. 

After the vote, they were informed that Benson did not consider the language demanding an audit to be binding.

"I would not have agreed to the certification but for the promise of an audit," Hartmann said in his affidavit, which appears to be missing at least one page.

The Board of State Canvassers can vote to force the secretary of state's office to conduct an audit. The Michigan Bureau of Elections can audit results before the final certification of statewide votes — as it did with Detroit's August 2013 mayoral primary — or afterward — as it did with the November 2016 general election.

At least four lawsuits — including two from the campaign of President Donald Trump — sought to stop the certification of results in Wayne County based on claims of barriers to GOP poll challengers and ballot irregularities at Detroit's absentee counting boards at the TCF Center. 

City and state officials have refuted claims that GOP challengers were prevented access to ballot counting in Detroit, though at one point additional challengers — both Democratic and Republican —  were not let in because of COVID-19 capacity limits. 

Officials also have refuted claims about the city's ballot counting process, noting that the allegations stemmed from a misunderstanding of how the counting process is supposed to occur.

Out-of-balance poll books —  in which the number of voters in the poll book does not match the ballots cast — is common and often occurs through human error. But Detroit has had a higher incidence of it occurring in part because of the large volumes of ballots it processes.

In August, 72% of Detroit's poll books were found to be out of balance, a condition that precluded many of the precincts from being used if a recount were requested. The issues prompted the state to send in additional help ahead of the general election, including veteran state elections official Chris Thomas.

Detroit had problems with precinct count mismatches in the November 2016 election. Election officials couldn’t reconcile vote totals for 59% of precincts in the city during a countywide canvass of vote results with most of the issues involving too many votes.

In both cases, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers still voted to certify the election results despite those unbalanced books.

Staff writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.