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Shouting, confrontation at Detroit vote count center: Poll challengers barred by police

Breana Noble Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Detroit — A chaotic confrontation with protesters unfolded Wednesday afternoon inside the TCF Center, where city police officers barred Republican and Democratic poll challengers from entering the room where Detroit ballots were being counted inside the convention center.

Both political parties had surpassed the law-mandated maximum of 134 challengers with more than 200 each, and when election workers told GOP challengers the party had hit its limit, some began shouting about the unfair process and lack of transparency. An unidentified election worker shouted back the group was at its maximum size. 

City police officers then locked the doors following the altercation, limiting those who could enter. Challengers then proceeded to knock on the windows and doors looking into the rooms where ballots were being counted, and election workers covered some of the glass with cardboard and poster board.

"They're escorting us out like bouncers for a nightclub," said Republican challenger Nick Sinishtaj of Addison Township. "When you walk in, they ask what party you're affiliated with and as soon as you say GOP, they say, 'Both are at capacity.' Well, if that was the case, why did you ask what my party was in the first place?"

Dozens of Republicans, he added, left the room where ballots are being counted, and the city's Department of Elections officials were not letting the challengers be replaced as they leave.

At his last count, Lawrence Garcia, the city of Detroit's corporation counsel and an election commissioner, said there were about 225 Republican, 250 Democrat and around 70 independent challengers, though he said some of the partisan members had been obtaining independent credentials to enter.

“We realized this afternoon we were well over the (134 maximum) just in the haste of doing business, nobody noticed that until it was over 200 for each party, and at that point, we said, we better stop admitting people until they leave, and we’re under the 134 number. ... That's the rules. We have to play by them."

He added the cardboard coverings on the windows were added because people on the other side of them were taking photos and videotaping, which is not allowed by challengers and poll workers inside the ballot-counting room, and it was making some of the workers uncomfortable. Other windows were left open so people still could see what was happening inside.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time," Garcia said of the confrontations with challengers. "People are getting stressed out and acting out, but it’s OK. It’s healthy. It’s part of the process.”

The chaos unfolded as President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign filed suit in Michigan’s Court of Claims seeking to halt ballot counting in the state “until meaningful access has been granted" to observe the ballot counting process. Meanwhile, a review was underway of unofficial results in a small county in Northern Michigan.

Detroit Police officers prevent MIGOP election challengers from entering the Central Counting Board hall at TCF Center in Detroit on November 4.

After the news broke of Trump's lawsuit, inside the room where ballots were being counted, a group of unidentified people briefly started chanting, "Stop the votes!"

The Detroit Department of Elections had counted roughly 162,000 absentee ballots as of 2 p.m. Wednesday, Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey's office said in a statement. The department anticipated that it would complete the counting of absentee ballots by 6 p.m. It mailed out 190,000 absentee ballots, and ​178,000 were returned. At about 7:10 p.m., it was announced over a loudspeaker that vote-counting was nearly complete.

Shortly before 8 p.m., Winfrey announced there were about 1,200 more ballots to count.

"We will not allow anyone to distract us from the job at hand," she said in a statement. "Our charge is to remain calm, focused and deliberate as we continue the task at hand."

Ballot challengers and others stand outside the ballot-counting area after several windows were blocked, causing anger.

About 9 p.m, Daniel Baxter, special projects consultant for the city's department of elections, announced tabulating was complete, with 178,000 ballots tabulated: "We broke a record for the city of Detroit," he said.

"This process has been moving on all day today," said Sharon Dolente, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan who was a challenger for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. "We've been watching the process, being able to see every aspect of it. I have seen my counterparts from different challenger organizations observing every part of the process. The process is working."

During an earlier news conference at City Hall, Mayor Mike Duggan congratulated Winfrey on the handling of the election, saying the city’s 23 satellite facilities, polling spots and TCF Center have amounted to “a couple of days with really no drama.”

“I am confident they are going to wrap up today,” Duggan said of the ongoing tabulations at the TCF Center. “It’s been a long time since we had an election with this little drama.”

Duggan said the police department was visible to ensure that there wasn’t any discomfort at any polling spots and Detroit had “virtually no incidents.”

But with ballots sent from military members and others living overseas still to be counted, Christopher Schormak, a challenger with the nonpartisan Election Integrity Fund, a project of the conservative Thomas More Society law firm, said he was skeptical the city would finish by that deadline. Credentialed nonpartisan organizations can have up to 134 challengers, the same number of "counting boards" inspecting ballots with five workers each.

"The type of ballot they have won't feed into the machine," he said. "All of them have to be duplicated and double-checked by another worker."

Meanwhile, protesters outside the convention center where there was a heavy police presence calmly held "Count Every Vote" and "Voters Decide" signs while some sang hymns.

“I’m not surprised, this is what they’ve been indicating they would do,” said Dan Cancro, 48, of Detroit who carried a sign outside he adorned with blinking Christmas lights and had been a nonpartisan challenger for the MI2020 Protect the Election Program on Tuesday, of the efforts to stop the ballot counting. “We’ll see it out and follow the legal course of events. In the end, I believe Biden will win. I believe in democracy.”

Several challengers were escorted by police from the TCF Center for not wearing their masks properly inside the room where ballots were being counted, Garcia said.

Being prevented from entering the counting room was not isolated to Republicans. Democratic challenger Rachel Fahn, 20, of Commerce Township said she had to wait for two hours Wednesday morning to get access to the room. The Democratic Party, she said, had directed her and other challengers to wait because of safety concerns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"I just waited out here until people took breaks," Fahn said. "It took about two hours. It isn't just the GOP that isn't being let in."

A challenge flag is raised as Detroit absentee ballots are processed at TCF Center, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

Todd Davis, 57, of Troy, arrived at the center about 6 a.m. to serve as a Democratic challenger and worked for more than 12 hours.

From what he saw, the tabulating process went smoothly, he said: "On the actual ballots themselves, I haven't seen hardly any (issues). In my opinion, it seems to be a very clean, very well-done process."

Davis, a longtime volunteer with various local and state Democratic groups, commended poll workers for pushing through multiple distractions and instances that he felt amounted to intimidation: "These people are angels."

Some of the behavior from Republican challengers was "bad," he said. "There was one guy who took his mask off and was standing over one of the poll workers. ... It just seems like their intention is just to come down here and disrupt and delay."

The close and pivotal races for president and U.S. Senate turned the national spotlight on Michigan as the fight for votes switched from the casting of ballots to the counting of ballots.

"There are times when people are just sitting around doing nothing," said Gordon Pennington, 65, of Owasso, an Election Integrity Fund challenger. "Then a whole bunch of ballots will be dumped, and that's when the activity starts."

A group of Republican challengers started the day early, descending to the bottom floor of the Detroit convention center. A large group of Democratic challengers had also arrived Wednesday. More from both parties funneled into the center throughout the day.

Election watcher Tim Griffin, Virginia, watches as Detroit absentee ballots are processed at TCF Center, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. "There's been a lot of problems with the process so far," said Griffin, a member of the Thomas More Society.

“This is the most amount of challengers I have seen on the floor,” said Tim Griffin, a lawyer with the Thomas More Society firm who was directing poll challengers. “We just want to make sure every vote is counted fairly.”

But Griffin took issue with the representation of the poll workers. About a dozen, he said, were Republicans, while there are 600-700 inspectors in the TCF Center.

“This is not a fair process,” he said. “There’s supposed to be one Republican at each of the tables.”

Added Pennington: "When they are duplicating the ballots, which they are allowed to do if there's a tear or a coffee stain so the machine can read it, they're supposed to have two witnesses, one from each majority party. That's not always happening."

The aim is to have at least one poll worker from each party at each board, Garcia of the city of Detroit said. "We don't have an equal number of Republican poll workers as Democrats," he said, though he did not immediately know the difference in number.

He and Griffin said early Wednesday morning before 4 a.m., a new batch of 38,000 ballots were brought in for counting from an unknown location.

"We were being physically blocked" from nearing the scene, Pennington said. "It was 'nothing to see here.' Where did those ballots come from?"

Deborah Choly, 66, of Grosse Pointe also showed up Wednesday afternoon to be a challenger for the Democratic Party. She said she was contacted by the National Lawyers Guild.

"They said there was a need to come up, so I did," she said.

Staff Writers Christine Ferretti and Jordyn Grzelewski contributed.

bnoble@detroitnews.com

cmauger@detroitnews.com