Election tensions rise as James campaign questions Wayne County vote counting

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The process of examining and confirming election vote tallies in Wayne County, Michigan's largest county, got off to a rocky start Thursday as claims and frustration flew during a 25-minute meeting.

At one point, Charlie Spies, an attorney for Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, said he had "very serious concerns" about the way the election was administered in the Democratic-dominated county, but he didn't provide specific evidence to back up his comments.

Freedom Works Sr Fellow Rev. C.L. Bryant, (L) of Shreveport, Louisiana and Biden supporter Angelo Austin, of Detroit, argue in front of the TCF Center. Bryant is also a founding board member of Black Voices for Trump.

At another point, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett said it was "irresponsible" for a Republican member of the four-person county board of canvassers, William Hartmann, to have publicly labeled the administration of the August primary election "incompetence."

“I stand by that statement,” Hartmann fired back.

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers met Thursday morning to approve the beginning of the election's canvass  — the process of examining and confirming ballot and voter totals. In Michigan, counties must complete their canvass on Nov. 17 and then forward results to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

During a Thursday period for public comment, Spies made a variety of claims about problems in the county, saying Republican poll watchers had faced intimidation and weren't able to "meaningfully participate" in monitoring the vote count.

"We have seen and we have witnesses that saw the mysterious appearance of ballots at the TCF Center that can't be accounted for," Spies said.

Charlie Spies, a Michigan native and election law attorney.

However, it would not be abnormal for legal votes to show up in batches at the center, where Detroit's absentee ballots are tallied. The claims by Spies came as election workers in Michigan neared a final unofficial tally of votes across the state.

With 99% of precincts reporting, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, led James, a businessman from Farmington Hills, by 88,400 votes or less than 2 percentage points. In the presidential race, Democrat Joe Biden won Michigan and was up over President Donald Trump by 150,371 votes or less than 3 percentage points.

The close vote counts, the stakes of the election and Trump's past comments questioning the integrity of the election have put the national spotlight on Michigan's processes for counting and tracking ballots. It's a system that has received positive reviews from elections experts, and the same verification processes were in place when Trump won a 10,704-vote victory, his smallest margin nationally, in 2016.

On Wednesday, Trump's campaign filed a lawsuit that sought to halt the counting of votes in Michigan “until meaningful access has been granted" to Republicans to observe the process.

Also, on Wednesday, a chaotic scene unfolded at the TCF Center, where there were demonstrations and city police officers barred Republican and Democratic poll challengers from entering the room where Detroit ballots were being counted.

Spies told the Wayne County Board of Canvassers on Thursday there had been "violent intimidation" of poll watchers and challengers at the TCF Center.

"They were thrown out. They were not allowed to do their job. And your workers, when I say your, the city of Detroit's workers, stood up and cheered when it was announced that Republicans were being removed," the attorney said.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey was unable to provide accurate numbers about how many votes were cast during a recent appearance on CNN, Spies said. However, it was Garrett, the Wayne County clerk, who had appeared on the cable news network, not Winfrey.

"It was not Clerk Winfrey on CNN. It was me," Garrett said during the Thursday meeting.

"Then, you should be ashamed of your performance," Spies replied.

The GOP attorneys urged the board of canvassers to put "controls in place" to allow for meaningful participation from Republicans in the canvassing process.

MIGOP challenger Linda Moore, 69, of Milford, observes the counting and processing of absentee ballots at TCF Center in Detroit.

"Right now, people don't have that confidence, and if you continue with this canvass without any change, you're going to have serious, serious problems," Spies said.

One reason that campaigns have focused on Detroit's vote is because of problems tracking ballots in past elections. In the August primary, recorded ballot counts in 72% of Detroit's absentee voting precincts didn't match the number of ballots cast.

That fact doesn't mean the vote counts were off, election officials have cautioned, but it would likely mean the precincts' votes couldn't be recounted under Michigan election law.

cmauger@detroitnews.com