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Michigan officials defend Detroit's vote count from Trump lawsuit, debunk dead voter claim

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

President Donald Trump's campaign filed a second lawsuit in Michigan on Tuesday seeking to stop the state's canvassing and certification of ballots, but the state's chief elections official and attorney general defended the election results.

The Trump campaign filed the case in federal court, where the campaign is alleging "irregularities" in the Detroit absentee ballot-counting process and concerns over a software glitch in Antrim County in northern Michigan. 

Unlike the campaign's filing in the state Court of Claims last week, Tuesday's filing includes more than 230 pages of affidavits, some handwritten, attesting to the irregularities, said Mark "Thor" Hearne, a St. Louis, Missouri, lawyer for the campaign. 

The campaign announced the suit Tuesday evening, roughly five hours before actually filing the case in U.S. District Court Western District of Michigan. 

The campaign was denied emergency relief in Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephen's courtroom on Thursday in a separate case and was told Monday that its appeal in the state Court of Appeals was missing several attachments. Hearne said he was working to obtain some of those filings, such as transcripts, from the Court of Claims and plans to continue to pursue the state case. 

Tuesday's federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of seven Republican poll challengers in Michigan, alleges equal protection violations of the challengers as well as violations of federal and state laws guaranteeing the "purity of the election."

Many of the claims in Tuesday's suit were similar to those alleged in other lawsuits in the last week, including ballot entry irregularities, barriers preventing Republican poll challengers from observing at the TCF Center in Detroit and issues with the Dominion Voting Systems in Antrim County.

"This case simply repeats the baseless claims that have been made in four separate lawsuits and that already have been refuted by each court that has ruled so far," said David Fink, a lawyer for the city of Detroit. "Those judges are in agreement that these claims lack any credible evidence to support them. This latest suit is no different."

Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel noted the lawsuit's focus on Detroit — despite Trump's additional losses in outlying, white communities — doubles down on what she said was the Trump campaign's narrative that "Black people are corrupt, Black people are incompetent, and Black people can't be trusted."

"If I ever walked into court with claims that were this baseless and this frivolous, I would be sanctioned and I would likely be looking at a loss of licensure," Nessel said Wednesday. "That's how baseless these claims really are."

Detroit has had a pattern of voting troubles over at least 15 years — including in the August primary — that have included judicial intervention and recounts of ballots by state election officials. From outdated voter rolls to special deliveries of absentee ballots to obsolete equipment to mismatched poll book numbers, Detroit's voting irregularities haven't resulted in widespread voter fraud but have raised questions about the counting of ballots.

When asked whether the Trump campaign believed its lawsuit would overcome the 146,000-vote margin in Michigan between Trump and Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, Trump campaign communication director Tim Murtaugh said the campaign does not file a lawsuit if it doesn't believe it has merit. 

"Every filing and every action that we are taking are getting us closer to the goal of seeing the president reelected," Murtaugh said. "We do not think we are going to eat the apple in one bite, but a large part of these lawsuits is to gather further information.”

For example, he said, with Tuesday's lawsuit the campaign hopes to research the software issue in Antrim County at greater length to determine if it affected other counties using the same software.

Antrim County pulled its unofficial results off its website last week after officials found a discrepancy that showed Biden leading in the GOP-leaning county. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office has said it was an error by the Antrim County clerk, who failed to update the software used to collect data from voting machines. 

The issue was corrected and likely would have been discovered in the canvassing process if media and other GOP officials hadn't drawn the county's attention to it first, officials said. 

Republicans raised concerns about the glitch, noting that 47 other counties have the same software. Republican Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons noted last week the Michigan Republican Party also has used the software in the past for its nomination process. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Wednesday she's "confident" that election result reporting problems in Antrim County were "limited to human error" and didn't occur in any other counties. Election officials at the county and state level are canvassing the results, which involves double-checking the processes that were used on Election Day. 

In August, the Wayne County canvass revealed that nearly three-quarters of absentee precincts in Detroit would have been eliminated from any potential recount because vote totals were at least one off from the poll books without explanation. The complaints by the Wayne County Board of Canvassers prompted the state to send Detroit help for the Nov. 3 election. 

Benson said Wednesday that due to the changes, "this was a much efficient, secure, by the book election in Detroit than we've perhaps seen in recent years."

The lawsuit also alleges poll challengers were forced to stay 6 feet away from poll workers, making it difficult to observe in a meaningful way, and kept away from the ballot duplication process at the TCF Center. 

One of the affidavits came from Mary Shinkle, the wife of Norm Shinkle, a Republican member of the Michigan Board of State Canvassers responsible for the final certification of results in Michigan.

Elections officials have argued that at least 134 Republican poll challengers observed the absentee ballot counting process at the TCF Center before a surge of other challengers demanded entrance that was barred because of COVID-19 capacity restrictions. 

Among the affidavits included in Tuesday's lawsuit were several alleging ineligible ballots, "backdated" ballots, ballots that were run through tabulators multiple times, ballots for whom the individual was recorded with a birthdate of Jan. 1, 1900 if they weren't found in the poll book and ballots recorded without any signature or postmark. 

The lawsuit also alleges workers "corrected" overvotes and undervotes on some ballots. 

Another affidavit came from a woman who claimed her deceased son, who would have been 42 this year, was recorded as voting in the Nov. 3 election but did not say where the ballot was cast. 

The deceased individual alleged to have voted — Mark D. Chase, who was born in 1978 — had his record canceled in 2016 in the state's qualified voter file and has not had voting history since 2014, Benson spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer said.

Two other Mark D. Chases in Michigan are in the qualified voter file, one who does have an active voting record and another who does not, Wimmer said. Those individuals were born in 1964 and 1952.

Responding to some claims of ballot backdating last week, city officials have explained that the receipt date of some absentee ballots was entered into the qualified voter file at the absentee counting board because some Detroit satellite clerks' office stamped the date on the absentee envelope but forgot to enter the information into the electronic voter file. None of the ballots entered into the system were received after Election Day, officials said.

In a Tuesday statement, Benson's office said ballots of voters who have died between casting an absentee ballot and Election Day are rejected. The state department sampled some of the lists circulating claiming dead people had voted in Michigan and found they contain too little information to even compare with the state's qualified voter file.

"We are not aware of a single confirmed case showing that a ballot was actually cast on behalf of a deceased individual," the statement said. 

The lawsuit was filed against Benson and the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. Benson's office and Antrim County are located in the Western District of Michigan, while Wayne County is located in the Eastern District of Michigan.

All five judges in the Western District of Michigan were appointed by Republican presidents. The vast majority of the judges in the Eastern District of Michigan were appointed by Democratic presidents. The judge in a federal lawsuit is selected by random draw.

Staff Writer Riley Beggin contributed.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com