Wayne Co. canvassers certify election results after initial deadlock

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers abruptly changed course Tuesday night and certified the results of the Nov. 3 election after initially deadlocking 2-2 along party lines, which could have delayed the state process for validating pivotal votes.

The deadlock decision had been lauded by Republicans but decried by Democrats. During a lengthy public comment session, the vote was described as a targeted attack on majority-Black Detroit, the largest city in the county and state.

After hours of angry responses from Wayne County residents, the change in course was approved by the two Republican and two Democratic canvassers with the demand that the Secretary of State's office conduct a "comprehensive audit" of precincts with unexplained out-of-balance tallies.

The high-stakes vote, with the eyes of the nation on Michigan's largest county, apparently took place while the video stream for the virtual meeting wasn't working.

"That passed unanimously," Republican member William Hartmann said when the video began functioning again. "We just voted on that."

Moments later, he said, "We're going to adjourn," and the board ended its meeting at 9:08 p.m.

Minutes after that, President Donald Trump tweeted, based on the past deadlocked vote, "Wow! Michigan just refused to certify the election results! Having courage is a beautiful thing. The USA stands proud!"

Board Vice Chairman Jonathan Kinloch, one of the two Democrats, had been working with Republicans during the meeting to find a way that they would support certifying the results. Eventually, they landed on the idea of an audit, he said.

The public criticism from voters and poll workers in the county also helped change the outcome, Kinloch said. The two Republicans listened to the comments, he said.

“It restored my faith in the fact that yes, government does work, that yes, the people can make a difference," said Kinloch, who has vowed to ensure the audit takes place.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said if the board would have declined to certify the results, it would have been "an historically shameful act."

"Glad to see common sense prevailed in the end," Duggan said. "Thank you to all those citizens who spoke up so passionately — you made the difference!"

The board's votes came after absentee ballot poll books at 70% of Detroit's 134 absentee counting boards were found to be out of balance without explanation. The mismatches varied anywhere from one to more than four votes. 

In August, canvassers found 72% of Detroit's absentee voting precincts didn't match the number of ballots cast. The imbalances between August and November are not an exact comparison since August's canvassing was based on results from 503 precincts and November's canvassing was based on 134 counting boards.

The situation in August and earlier imbalances in 2016 were not enough to keep the same board from certifying the results in this year's primary and November 2016. 

But about six hours into the tense meeting, the board decided to certify the results and ask Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to audit the results in some of the county's problem precincts. The board then quickly adjourned the meeting.

The initial deadlock had been a new pinnacle in the effort by some Republicans to cast doubt on Michigan's election in which Trump lost by more than 146,000 votes to Democrat Joe Biden. The efforts have included affidavits, lawsuits and a legislative inquiry but haven't uncovered evidence of widespread fraud. 

Kinloch, a Democrat, called the decision to initially block the certification by the two Republican members "reckless and irresponsible."

"There is no reason under the sun for us to have not certified this election," Kinloch said. "I believe that politics made its presence known here today.”

Chairwoman Monica Palmer, a Republican, defended the initial decision. 

"Based on what I saw and went through in poll books in this canvass, I believe that we do not have complete and accurate information in those poll books," she said. 

Benson said it is common for some precincts to be out of balance by a small number of votes, especially in large turnout elections. Michigan's general election set a record with a turnout of 5.5 million voters.

"Michigan’s Bureau of Elections stands ready to fulfill its duty to complete the canvas for Wayne County, address any clerical errors and improve the quality of the canvass overall," Benson said in a statement. "Importantly, this is not an indication that any votes were improperly cast or tabulated."

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers failed to certify the 2013 mayoral primary candidates within 14 days and left the decision to the Board of State Canvassers. The Michigan Bureau of Elections reviewed the ballots, and the state board eventually certified the results and found write-in candidate Duggan won the primary.

Out-of-balance boards are “absolutely” not evidence that something improper had occurred, said Chris Thomas, Michigan’s former longtime elections director who is working with Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey’s office.

Thomas said city officials would work with the Michigan Board of State Canvassers to ensure the results ultimately get certified. 

“That is not going to happen,” Thomas said about the claim Wayne County voters would be disenfranchised. 

The former state elections director said he doesn’t expect the state board, which features two Republicans and two Democrats, to deadlock. If board members deadlock, a court will likely tell them to tell them to do their jobs, Thomas said.

Deadlock amid lawsuits

The Trump campaign has been looking to discredit the results in Wayne County by questioning how the absentee ballots were counted at the TCF Center in Detroit. Biden defeated Trump 51%-48% in Michigan in unofficial statewide results.

But at least four lawsuits by the Trump campaign and his allies in state and federal court have failed to gain traction as judges have said the witnesses and affidavits cited in the suits have been refuted or failed to provide corroborating evidence of widespread fraud. The litigation has sought to stop the canvassing of results in the Democratic stronghold of Wayne County based on allegations of barriers to Republican poll challengers and ballot counting irregularities. 

None of the lawsuits have succeeded in halting the process. The claims in the suits have been rebutted by Detroit officials, Thomas and Benson's office.

The deadlocked Wayne County canvassing vote had the potential to delay the certification of statewide election results and extend the time for a potential recount.

A county board that fails to canvass within 14 days after the election must give all of its documentation to the Secretary of State's office and Board of State Canvassers, which then has 10 days to complete the work, canvass and certify the results, according to the board’s canvassing manual.

Wayne County would have been required to pay for the state canvassing work, according to board guidance.

When Kinloch protested that additional county tax money was going to be spent on the ongoing canvass, Palmer said she would be open to certifying much of Wayne County with the exception of Detroit.

Other Wayne County municipalities that also reported unbalanced absentee poll books included Livonia, Lincoln Park and Inkster.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the board's initial decision placed "partisan politics" above their duty to certify the election. 

"The people have spoken: Joe Biden won Michigan by more than 140,000 votes," said Whitmer, a Democrat. "Today’s action is a blatant attempt to undermine the will of the voters."

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, criticized the initial decision as dozens of people in the public comment session decried the decision as political and racist toward a city where 79% of the population is African American.

"The Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers put politics above their duty to our residents," Tlaib tweeted Tuesday. "Suggesting that all of Wayne County can be certified, EXCEPT for Detroit, is horrifying racist and a subversion of our democracy."

Biden won Detroit 93.5%-5% over Trump, who still received almost 6,000 more votes this year in Michigan's largest city than in 2016. Biden won the county 68%-31% over Trump with more than 863,000 votes cast.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, who lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters by 1.5 percentage points or 83,100 votes, lauded the Wayne County board's initial decision for confronting "inconvenient truths" about alleged irregularities during the vote counting process. 

"We will continue to investigate all issues pertaining to the election and work to ensure that the bedrock of our democracy — free and fair elections — are protected," said James, who has refused to concede to Peters. "We must restore public trust in elections by undertaking a careful and thorough review of the process."

Abraham Aiyash, a Hamtramck Democrat elected to fill partial and full terms after the death of Democratic state Rep. Isaac Robinson of Detroit, criticized the initial delay and noted that it would delay his swearing in. 

"Know that we see what's happening," he said. "Know that there is nothing other than Jim Crow-ing that is going on right now."

What's next 

The board meeting was delayed more than an hour and a half as the four canvassers awaited further documents on the canvassing process and attempted to accommodate hundreds of people seeking to participate in the meeting. 

The meeting room was capped at about 35 people — including staff and members of the public — and the Zoom call was unable to accommodate all participants, even after capacity was expanded from 100 to more than 300 individuals. 

A half dozen people holding signs protested outside the meeting at the Ralph Vigliotti Building demanding that the vote be certified.

Renee Brown of Detroit said it was undemocratic to even consider throwing out the votes of Wayne County residents.

“It’s making a travesty of justice. It’s nothing but politics,” Brown said.

Wayne County Board of Canvassers Chair Monica Palmer, left, talks with Vice Chair Jonathan Kinloch before the board's Nov. 17, 2020 meeting in Detroit.

The county's election results will move the Board of State Canvassers, which is scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to get an update on the canvassing process and is expected to consider the question of certification of Michigan's results on Monday.

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers started its examination of vote tallies in Wayne County on Nov. 5. 

The board is tasked with overseeing Wayne County staff as they review and authenticate  documents produced during the tabulation of results on Nov. 3 and Nov. 4. The board then certifies the results by signing off on the canvassing process and announcing the final vote totals in Wayne County. 

County canvassing boards have 14 days from the start of the canvassing process to certify their results. 

The lack of a Wayne County certification would have extended the time for a possible recount. Recount petitions are required to be filed with the county clerk within six days after the county canvassing board completes its work.

At the state level, recount petitions in the races for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and state House can be filed with the secretary of state within 48 hours after the State Board of Canvassers certifies the election results and adjourns. 

The U.S. Constitution requests the states to certify their results by Dec. 8, which is known as the “safe harbor” day. Any state that doesn’t do so potentially invites Congress to get involved in resolving a dispute about which candidate won the state and its 16 electoral votes.

The Electoral College is scheduled to meet and vote on Dec. 14.

The Wayne County board's two Republican lawmakers were present during the absentee ballot counting process at TCF Center in Detroit. Palmer said part of the reason she observed the process was because of some of the problems identified during the canvassing of the August primary. 

In August, 72% of Detroit's poll books were found to be out of balance, a condition that precluded them from being used if a recount were requested. The issues prompted the state to send in additional help ahead of the general election, including veteran state elections official Thomas.

Detroit had problems with precinct count mismatches in the November 2016 election. Election officials couldn’t reconcile vote totals for 59% of precincts in the city during a countywide canvass of vote results with most of the issues involving too many votes.

Those votes couldn't be recounted when Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein demanded a statewide recount following Donald Trump's initial 13,000-vote victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in Michigan. A recount was started but stopped and nullified by the courts when Stein was ruled ineligible for a recount request because she had no chance at victory.

The results eventually were certified as a 10,704-vote victory for Trump.