Michigan board certifies Nov. 3 election, cementing Biden victory

Lansing — The Michigan board in charge of certifying election results cast a pivotal vote Monday to validate the state's tallies, cementing Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's victory despite unproven claims of fraud levied by Republican President Donald Trump.

The Board of State Canvassers voted 3-0 to certify the results after taking about three hours of public comment. Republican board member Aaron Van Langevelde crossed over to join the two Democratic board members in supporting certification, which is traditionally viewed as an administrative step but had drawn the spotlight as Trump's campaign questioned the integrity of the election. 

Joe Biden supporters roll past in a car caravan in front of the state capitol, in Lansing, November 23, 2020. Democratic and Republican groups were concerned with the certification vote by the Michigan board of state canvassers.

The other Republican on the panel, Norm Shinkle, abstained, meaning Langevelde's was decisive.

"We have a clear legal duty to certify the results of the election, as shown by the returns that were given to us," Van Langevelde said. "We cannot and should not go beyond that. As John Adams once said, 'We are a government of laws, not men.'

Aaron Van Langevelde, a Republican member of the Board of State Canvassers, voted to certify Michigan's Nov. 3 election during the board's meeting on Nov. 23, 2020.

"This board needs to adhere to that principle and do its part to uphold the rule of law here today. This board must uphold the law and comply with our legal duty to certify this election."

Shinkle called for the Republican-led Legislature to conduct an in-depth review of election procedures . He also cited Wayne County, where two GOP canvassers said they regretted their votes to certify the county results because of out-of-balance absentee ballot counting boards in Detroit.

"I do not plan on voting for certification. I believe Wayne County’s certification needs to be looked at," Shinkle said before abstaining.

Van Langevelde, an attorney who works for Michigan House Republicans, and Shinkle, a longtime GOP political activist, personified the diverging approaches of members of their party to the election results. Van Langevelde contended that the law necessitated certification of Biden's victory, while Shinkle continued to question the entire process.

Ben Halle, spokesman for Biden's presidential campaign in Michigan, touted the board's decision, saying it was a "recognition of the plain facts" that the former vice president won the state by more than 154,000 votes.

"We thank the State of Michigan for its support and look forward to receiving its 16 electoral votes," Halle said.

But the vote was simply a "procedural step," said Jenna Ellis, senior legal adviser for Trump's campaign.

"We are going to continue combating election fraud around the country as we fight to count all the legal votes," Elllis said. "Americans must be assured that the final results are fair and legitimate."

'The law is pretty clear'

Republican Party leaders had urged the Board of State Canvassers to delay certification and review tallies in Wayne County, Michigan's largest county. But Van Langevelde said he had reviewed state law and the board was simply required to canvass the county returns and determine the results as presented.

"I've reviewed every section. I haven't found anything about an audit," Van Langevelde said. "I found nothing about authority for us to delay certification because we're waiting for more accurate results. I found nothing about making certification contingent on an audit. I found nothing that gives us the authority to review complaints for fraud.

"I mean, I think, the law is pretty clear here."

The four canvassers had already been presented with the certified results from all 83 Michigan counties to review. Staff from the state Bureau of Elections has recommended that they certify the results and make them official. 

Charlie Spies, an attorney for Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, told board members that they had the power to order an audit, citing Michigan law that says the board can "ascertain and determine the result of an election."

The James campaign has urged the board to take an additional two weeks to audit the election results by Dec. 7 before voting to certify. James lost to U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, by 92,000 votes.

"I would suggest if you take the rubber stamp approach, that you are not allowed to have any discretion, that renders your job meaningless," Spies said.

Legislative leaders react

After Monday's certification vote, the Board of State Canvassers unanimously approved a motion by Shinkle to request that the state Legislature conduct an "in-depth review" of Michigan's election processes and procedures "in order to assure our citizens that Michigan elections are accurate, transparent and fully protecting all citizens constitutional rights."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, thanked the board for performing its duties.

"The Senate will honor their unanimous request to closely review Michigan's elections process to identify much-needed improvements," Shirkey tweeted.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said the board had "fulfilled its legal duties" by certifying the results. On Friday, he, Shirkey and five other Michigan lawmakers huddled with Trump at the White House. The legislators said they used the meeting to focus on their push for COVID-19 support while Democrats claimed the election was the subject of the unusual gathering.

"This is America at work," Chatfield said in a statement about the certification process. "I am also glad the conspiracy theories pushed by far too many Democrats and some talking heads in the media for attention and personal or political gain have finally been put to rest.

"As we have been saying consistently for weeks, the Legislature will uphold the law and respect this result as it works to improve the process for next time."

Hours of public comments

At the beginning of Monday's 1 p.m. meeting, Democratic member Julie Matuzak motioned to certify the election results, but Van Langevelde said he wanted to hear public comments first.

"I think that the board's duty today is very important. We have a duty to certify this election based on the returns," Van Langevelde said at that point. "That is very clear. And we are limited to these returns. And I'm not going to argue that we're not.

"But I still think that people who signed up to speak today should have the chance to speak before we act on the motion."

The first public comment came from Chris Thomas, who served more than three decades as Michigan's elections director before retiring in 2017. Thomas helped Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey during the November election as a senior adviser.

"Am I correct in saying we’re not a court here, we don’t have judicial power, we don’t have the authority to conduct a trial on whether or not election fraud occurred?" Van Langevelde, who works for Michigan House Republicans, asked Thomas

“You are correct,” Thomas replied.

"You’re not a body to investigate fraud," the former elections director added. "You don’t have the tools to do that. The statute doesn’t give you the authority to mandate documents or compel testimony.”

Van Langevelde's question appeared to reference unproven and refuted claims from Trump's campaign that there was widespread fraud in Michigan's election. However, Jonathan Brater, Michigan's current elections director, told the Board of State Canvassers on Monday that the election was "extremely well run."

“The bureau has not identified any irregularities this year other than the typical occasional human error that is always part of the process," Brater said.

Shinkle, a canvasser who also chairs the 8th Congressional District Republican Committee, said there were some some improvements in the administration of the November election. But he said describing it as having run "smoothly was "not accurate at all."

Shinkle questioned Daniel Baxter, the former Detroit elections director who was hired as a consultant to oversee the TCF Center absentee counting boards, about supplemental voter lists used by election workers and why more GOP poll workers weren't hired by the city.

"We could not get the allotted number of poll workers to make sure that there were enough at each one of the tabulation stations or at each one of the central counting boards," Baxter replied.

'They have one job'

The meeting was conducted remotely with public access due to the pandemic. Under Michigan law, the Board of State Canvassers must begin the state certification process within 20 days after the election (which this year is Nov. 23) and wrap it up within 40 days of the election (Dec. 13). .

Unofficial returns show Biden, a Democrat, won 154,188 more votes than Trump, a Republican, in Michigan. Certification ultimately determines which candidate Michigan's 16 Electoral College votes will be cast for in Lansing on Dec. 14. Legal experts have said the canvassers have few options but to certify the results. 

Chairman of the Board of State Canvassers Norm Shinkle

"If the secretary of state places the county returns before the board, and no information is missing, the board has an obligation to certify. It has no other duties to exercise," said Steve Liedel, an election law specialist for Dykema Gossett law firm in Lansing who served as former chief legal counsel to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's transition team.

Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, backed that analysis in a Monday interview.

"They have one job, and that is to certify this election," Barnes said of the canvassers.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat and the state's top election official, said democracy had "prevailed." 

"Our democracy, like the election officials who administer it, is resilient," Benson said. "Today it and they survived an unprecedented attack on its integrity. There will no doubt be more similar attacks in the future, based in falsehoods and misinformation. But then, as now, we will be ready to respond as always with facts, data, and the truth."

Protesters gathered near the state Capitol on Monday morning in advance of the meeting. An electronic billboard nearby in downtown Lansing from the group Prosperity Michigan reads, "We voted. We counted. Next step, the State Board of Canvassers certifies the results."

There were three potential scenarios for the board's meeting: Certification, a delay or a 2-2 deadlock among the board members. The two latter scenarios could have led to court fights designed to force certification.

Top Michigan Republicans and allies of Trump have made claims of widespread election fraud without evidence in attempts to block certification of the results. The heads of the Michigan Republican Party and Republican National Committee on Saturday wrote to the board asking members to delay certification, putting pressure on the two GOP members.

A group of pro-Trump protesters gathers in front of the Austin Building in Lansing on Nov. 23, 2020.

Shinkle has previously said he has many questions about lingering allegations in Wayne County, all of which have been refuted by elections officials there. 

The unbalanced poll books do not necessarily indicate voter fraud, but are likely the result of clerical errors, experts say. Canvassers certified Detroit results with imbalances in 2016 and in the August primary.

David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University, noted that Biden is projected to win 306 electoral votes, so even if Michigan's 16 votes were thrown into question, the former vice president would still have more than the 270 votes necessary.

"Take away 16 electoral votes away from Joe Biden, he still has 290. He still wins," Dulio said.

States have until Dec. 8, what is known as "safe harbor" day, to choose electors to ensure they will be accepted by Congress.

When the vote is certified, Whitmer will notify the U.S. secretary of state of the electors who align with the state's popular vote. The electors will cast Michigan's 16 votes in the Electoral College next month in Lansing.

"I commend the three members of the State Board of Canvassers who voted to follow the law and certify the 2020 election results today," Whitmer said Monday. "The people of Michigan have spoken. President-elect Biden won the State of Michigan by more than 154,000 votes, and he will be our next president on Jan. 20th."

The electors, nominated by their parties, vote on Dec. 14. In past years, the vote has occurred at Michigan's Capitol.