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Detroit — U.S. Sen. Cory Booker got a big round of applause Wednesday when he implied during the Democratic presidential debate here that voter "suppression," particularly the targeting of black women, helped President Donald Trump win Michigan.

But the comment raised the eyebrows of an African-American political consultant as well as a Michigan debate expert, who argued the claims about the 2016 election were a bit “specious.”

A better argument could be made that voters’ distaste for the Democratic nominee and discontent with the economy were to blame for Hillary Clinton's loss rather “than delving into some conspiracy theories,” said University of Michigan Director of Debate Aaron Kall.

At the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Booker responded to a question regarding ways Democrats could beat Trump in states like Michigan by accusing his colleagues of failing to call out the real reason Clinton lost by 10,704 votes in Michigan in 2016.

“We lost the state of Michigan because everybody from Republicans to Russians were targeting the suppression of African-American voters,” Booker said. “We need to say that if the African-American vote in this state had been like it was four years earlier, we would have won the state of Michigan.”

He warned viewers that “an all-out assault” would be unleashed on black women and promised to fight against it to prevail in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2020. 

The New Jersey senator was referring to Russian meddling across the nation in the lead-up to the election, particularly social media ads that targeted minority populations, Booker’s press secretary Sabrina Singh said Thursday. Booker's comments also referred to Republican efforts to limit accessibility to the voting booth, Singh said.

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Reports prepared for the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee last year found Russians tailored their social media messaging in 2016 to different groups, including encouraging African Americans to boycott the election and focus on other issues, according to the Associated Press. 

Democrats have long criticized the GOP's opposition to expanded voting rights such as same-day voter registration or no-reason absentee voting, arguing the GOP's reticence is an attempt to limit access to the ballot box.

Booker "was totally wrong" and "apparently misinformed" about the realities that lost Democrats the city of Detroit and the rest of the state in 2016, said Detroit-based Democratic political consultant Mario Morrow. 

"African Americans were not motivated to go to the polls to vote," Morrow said. "Hillary Clinton and her campaign did terribly with outreach. They took the African-American vote in southeast Michigan for granted.” 

The Clinton campaign should have known it was in trouble after losing the Michigan primary to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Morrow said. Candidates for the 2020 presidency should learn from her mistake, he said. 

"Cory Booker needs to wake up and smell the black coffee," Morrow said, doubling down on complaints from other Michigan leaders about the lack of focus on issues that matter to the Midwest. "All of the candidates made a mistake by not talking about their urban agenda."

The nearly three-hour debates and crowded stage Tuesday and Wednesday seemed to be an effort at transparency in a nomination process that people criticized as unfair in 2016, said GOP strategist John Sellek. But Booker's comments showed the party still hadn't learned everything it should have from its loss to Trump in Michigan, he said.

"It’s widely known that the biggest negative impact on turnout in 2016 was the unhappiness with the idea of Hillary Clinton as president, and she has to take responsibility for that," Sellek said. 

Suspicions about wrongdoing in the 2016 election also were voiced this past week by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who questioned Michigan’s “under-vote” — the 75,000 voters in 2016 who filled out a ballot but didn’t mark their choice for president.

Democratic candidates should zero in on issues such as “shrinking congressional districts, precision gerrymandering, voter suppression and manipulation,” said Jackson, who noted the under-vote in Detroit as the most concerning issue.

“It's inconceivable that 75,000 would vote and not for the presidency. It's inconceivable,” Jackson told The Detroit News.

Republican former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson did not investigate the under-vote, spokesman Fred Woodhams said in 2018. The 75,000 ballots with no presidential choice were more than the 50,000-ballot under-vote in 2012 and the 40,000-ballot under-vote in 2008. 

About 1,400 of the 75,000 unmarked presidential choices in 2016 came from Detroit, Woodhams said last year.

“It’s worth noting,” he said, “that the two major-party candidates had record disapproval ratings, so it’s not surprising to us that some people chose not to vote that ballot line.”

During a partial statewide recount of Michigan’s ballots in December 2016, officials reviewed 2 million paper ballots before the courts stopped them. Clinton had picked up 103 votes that were later invalidated when the court halted the recount.

A federal judge stopped that December recount because Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who requested the recount, failed to show she was an aggrieved candidate entitled to a recount. Stein, who finished fourth statewide with 1% of the vote, had no statistical probability of coming close to winning with a recount. 

But the state audited some Detroit precincts because of irregularities that officials discovered during the recount that disqualified more than half of Detroit's votes for the recount. The Detroit News first reported the irregularities.

A later audit released by the state in February 2017 examined 136 of Detroit’s most irregular precincts and found 216 questionable votes attributed to “an abundance of human errors” by precinct workers. There were 128 more ballots cast than recorded voters, and 88 fewer ballots cast than voters, producing a net over-vote of 40 ballots.

The state “found no evidence of pervasive voter fraud,” but criticized Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey's office and recommended more training and better recruitment of precinct workers. 

At the time, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called the mistakes “terrible” and was thankful Michigan didn’t decide the national election and bring more of a spotlight to the problems.

"... Voter lists are not up to date, our equipment testing wasn't the way it should have been and we did not have people sufficiently trained, and that's just not excusable in this day and age," Duggan said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517)371-3661

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