Why these Michigan election conspiracy theories don't add up

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Questionable claims about Michigan's election have flooded social media, but there is little evidence at this point to back any of them up.

Here's a look at some of the claims and the facts surrounding them:

Claim 1: Widespread fraud swung the election

Any claim that there would be enough fraud in Tuesday's election to swing the presidential race in Michigan is dubious because of the sheer volume of votes it would take.

Jim Giambrone of Macomb Township flies his Trump sign as supporters of President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden yell at each other in front of the TCF Center in Detroit, Thursday afternoon, Nov. 5, 2020, as Detroit police officers keep the peace.

With 100% of precincts reporting, Democrat Joe Biden led President Donald Trump 50.6%-47.9%, by nearly 3 percentage points or 146,000 votes. It is nearly 14 times the number of votes the Republican president won Michigan by four years ago. The margin is also more than that by which Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin combined in 2016.

The president's claims have focused heavily on Detroit, Michigan's largest city. However, 250,138 votes were cast in the city in Tuesday's election. The 146,000-vote statewide margin represents nearly 60% of the total votes cast in Detroit.

Likewise, Detroit's turnout increased by a mere 2,000 votes from 2016. On the Thursday before Election Day, Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey predicted turnout would only increase to 50% from 48.6% in 2016. "But that's not enough, Detroit," the Democratic clerk said at a news conference last week. The city's turnout finished at 49.6%.

Trump performed better in Detroit this year than he did four years ago. His percentage of votes went from 3% to 5%, and the president received almost 5,000 more votes than four years ago, according to the city's unofficial results.

Michigan also has election procedures in place to prevent widespread fraud, including bipartisan boards of canvassers that examine and confirm results in each county.

The canvassing process — in which each record produced during the ballot counting process is scrutinized and compared in a public setting — is one of the most "underappreciated" security measures Michigan has in place, said Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a Republican. 

"It’s a really important part of the process that I believe helps to provide confidence to the public that our system is safe, secure and transparent," said Posthumus Lyons, who ran on the Republican gubernatorial ticket with then-Attorney General Bill Schuette in the 2018 race.

In addition, the state uses paper ballots that can be used as a backup if there is ever a question of the electronic tally.

Lastly, Michigan has a decentralized elections system that empowers more than 1,500 city or township clerks to run their own elections, a process that Posthumus Lyons argues "lends itself to better security."

Trump won Kent County by 3 percentage points in 2016. But Biden won it by 6 points in Tuesday's election, or about 21,000 votes, according to the unofficial results.

"We’ve just got a lot of checks and balances and transparency here in Michigan, and in Kent County we take that very seriously," Posthumus Lyons said. "I am 100% confident in the results in Kent County, and I’m confident that our canvass, once its all concluded, will validate that.”

Claim 2: Many dead people voted

Michigan has systems in place to prevent someone from casting a deceased person's ballot and a record of identifying votes from those who have died.

One of the steps in tabulating absentee votes is checking whether the signature on the absentee ballot application matches the signature in the qualified voter file. Later, the signature is matched again when an individual submits his or her actual ballot.

In the November 2016 presidential election, Michigan caught and rejected 1,782 absentee ballots because the voter had died in an election. In the August 2020 primary, 846 ballots were not accepted because the voter was dead, according to the Michigan Secretary of State's office. It took 10 days for that figure to be reported. The Nov. 3 rejected total wasn't known as of Friday.

A statewide audit released in 2017 — when Michigan had a Republican secretary of state, Ruth Johnson — found that 31 residents appeared to vote twice in the November 2016 presidential election, once by absentee ballot and once in person.

In total, 4.8 million votes were cast in that election.

Claim 3: Postmarks were changed in Traverse City

The conservative group Project Veritas claimed that a U.S. Postal Service "insider" in Traverse City told them that postmarks were "fraudulently" changed to show absentee ballots were received by Election Day when they weren't.

The Michigan Secretary of State's website says absentee ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

The problem with this claim is that the postmark — the date a piece of mail is received by the Postal Service — doesn't matter in Michigan regarding whether a ballot would qualify. 

"Fact check: Michigan’s election clerks count valid ballots that they received at their offices or in their official ballot drop boxes by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Ballots received thereafter, regardless of the postmark, are not counted," the Michigan Department of State tweeted earlier this week.

Grand Traverse County Clerk Bonnie Sheele, a Republican, said she believes the claims from Project Veritas are being investigated though she didn't know by which law enforcement agency.

Even if the postmarks were changed on the ballots, it would have no bearing on whether they were counted, she said, "because they weren't in the clerk's hands by 8 p.m." on Election Day.

"I have faith in our election process up here," Sheele said. "The clerks are very knowledgeable. We know what we’re doing.

"Everything that was supposed to be received by 8 o'clock was received and secured.”

Trump won Grand Traverse County 50%-47% or 30,502 votes to Biden's 28,682 votes. 

Claim 4: Changing vote totals point to fraud

On Thursday, the president falsely claimed that he had "won" Michigan on Election Night before tallies changed and Biden took the lead.

Trump had never won Michigan.

Because of a record turnout and the pandemic's prompting more people to vote by absentee ballot, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson had predicted it could take until Thursday or Friday for election workers to finish counting all of the votes. In a normal election, it might take until some time on Wednesday to complete the results.

Elections experts had said for weeks that Trump would likely perform better in early totals than he would in later totals. That's because more Democrats or Biden supporters chose to vote by absentee ballots, which generally take longer to count because of the extra processing and verification steps involved. More Republicans chose to vote on Election Day, which meant their votes would be processed quicker.

In a September poll of Michigan voters by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV, those planning to vote absentee favored Biden by 43 percentage points, 68%-25%. Those planning to vote on Election Day favored Trump 55%-31%.

The president has repeatedly questioned mail-in voting, which likely caused more of his supporters to vote in person. In September, pollster Richard Czuba, founder of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group, predicted the tallies would swing as Election Night wore on.

"In this era when everyone is sowing division over the trustworthiness of ballots, I think it's important for Michigan voters to have a very clear sense ...," he said at the time. "Let's not rush to decisions on election night knowing that all of these votes have to get counted." 

Claim 5: The mysterious wagon

A conservative website claimed it obtained a video from "a poll watcher in Detroit" that showed "wagons, suitcases and coolers moving in and out of a vote-counting center during the early morning" after the election.

But Detroit area WXYZ-TV investigative reporter Ross Jones said the man featured in the video who was wheeling equipment into the TCF Center was actually his photographer.

"He was bringing down equipment for our 12-hour shift," tweeted Jones, who later called the conservative website's report "absolute garbage."

As to claims of other batches of ballots being delivered to TCF Center, it's likely that ballots were delivered there because it's where absentee ballots from across Detroit were counted.

Claim 6: A 130,000-vote surge for Biden in GOP county

Just before 5 a.m. Wednesday, Biden’s lead in Republican-leaning Shiawassee County jumped by roughly 130,000 vote. The increase was registered on an independent vote count map, and screenshots of the map were shared widely by Matt Mackowiak, chairman for the Travis County Republican Party in Texas.

Mackowiak later deleted the viral tweet with an apology, noting it was shared honestly but that he later learned the error was the result of a typo.

The error occurred when Shiawassee County was transmitting its final, unofficial results to the Michigan Bureau of Elections just before 5 a.m. Wednesday, said Abigail Bowen, elections clerk for Shiawassee County.

While entering results for Biden, an extra zero was added to the Democrat's vote total, pushing it to 153,710 votes for Biden instead of 15,371. The county was notified of the error and corrected it within 25 minutes, but not before it was captured in real-time by an independent analyst and shared by Mackowiak and others.

Trump ended up winning Shiawassee County 59%-39% or 23,154 votes to Biden’s 15,371 votes. Shiawassee County Clerk Caroline Wilson is a Republican.

Claim 7: The problems in Antrim County

Northern Michigan’s Antrim County pulled its unofficial results from its website Wednesday morning after officials found a discrepancy in the numbers showed Biden leading in the GOP-leaning county.

In 2016, the county of about 23,000 residents voted 62%-33% for Republican Donald Trump, who got 8,469 votes. But on Wednesday, Republicans on social media were sharing images of unofficial results out of the county that showed Biden winning the county with 62% support.

The revised numbers were posted and showed Trump beat Biden by about 2,500 votes or 56%-42%.

The issue was a result of an error by the Antrim County Clerk, who failed to update software use to collect data from voting machines, the Michigan Department of State said Friday.

The error became a cog in a much larger concern over the computer system used there.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said 47 other counties use the same software as Antrim County, prompting concerns that problems are widespread.

Posthumus Lyons, a Republican, expressed confidence in the system that is also used in Kent County. She argued the Michigan Republican Party used the same system for its nomination process.

The party was unable to say what system it has used historically. But spokesman Tony Zammit said the system at issue in Antrim County has not been used under the tenure of Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox, who took office in early 2019.

"It’s starting to appear what happened in Antrim County was human error," said Posthumus Lyons. "If that would have not been caught by the public or what have you, that error would have been caught in the county canvass."