Michigan's former elections director: 'It was a damn good election'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Chris Thomas, Michigan's former longtime elections director, contradicted on Tuesday claims of fraud involving vote counting in Detroit and said it was a "damn good election given the circumstances."

Thomas, who worked as a special adviser to Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey for the Nov. 3 election, appeared before the Senate Oversight Committee for about three hours. During a meeting last week, the panel heard more than six hours of wide-ranging and unproven claims of wrongdoing from GOP poll challengers at TCF Center, where Detroit's absentee ballots were counted.

"I am not here telling you it was perfect," Thomas told lawmakers. "But it was a damn good election given the circumstances."

Chris Thomas, Michigan's former state elections director, speaks to the Senate Oversight Committee on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

Republicans, who hold a majority in the Legislature, grilled Thomas about the challengers' claims and the "chain of custody" for ballots as they moved through the verification and counting process in Detroit, a heavily Democratic city. But Democrats thanked Thomas, contending his remarks should convince people open to "the truth" about the election.

Oversight Chairman Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, had Thomas swear an oath to tell the truth before his testimony. Last week, more than 50 individuals who presented their experiences at TCF Center didn't have to take an oath.

Last Wednesday, Democrats tried to force Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump's personal attorney, to take an oath before he spoke at the House Oversight Committee in Lansing. Republican lawmakers blocked Giuliani from having to do it.

"Here in Michigan, we don’t administer oaths to people who testify," House Oversight Chairman Matt Hall, R-Marshall, said last Wednesday. "It’s almost unprecedented."

But on Tuesday, McBroom said it wasn't unprecedented to have individuals take an oath and his committee would begin administering oaths to people speaking about what they saw occur in the election.

Democratic President-elect Joe Biden won Michigan 51%-48% or by 154,000 votes on Nov. 3. But Trump's supporters have engaged in a weeks-long effort to discredit the election's results, which have been certified by the Board of State Canvassers and bipartisan canvassing boards in each county.

During the Wednesday hearing before the House Oversight Committee, Giuliani told lawmakers that Michigan's election was a "con job" as he presented witnesses who said they saw fraud occur at the TCF Center.

But Thomas negated many of their comments and contradicted other claims, saying the witnesses didn't understand what they were seeing on Election Day or the actual events didn't play out as described by them.

Mellissa Carone, a contractor at TCF Center for Dominion Voting Systems, has repeatedly said she saw thousands of instances of ballots being counted twice and run through tabulators multiple times. But Thomas said lawmakers wouldn't find evidence of tens of thousands of fraudulent ballots in Michigan's election.

"It's just not there," the former state elections director said.

If hundreds of votes were counted multiple times in Detroit, Thomas said, the lists of participating voters in the election and the number of ballots cast would be off by hundreds of votes in specific counting boards. While 70% of Detroit's 134 absentee counting boards were out of balance without explanations, none of them were individually off by more than 100 votes, Thomas told lawmakers.

Of the boards, 39 boards, or 29% of them, were in balance, and 64 boards, or 48%, were individually off by plus or minus four votes or fewer each, according to results certified by Wayne County's bipartisan board of canvassers.

Republican poll challengers have also focused on tens of thousands of ballots they say were delivered to the TCF Center in the early morning hours of Nov. 4, the day after the election. Andrew Sitto, one GOP poll challenger, told legislative committees last week that he saw Daniel Baxter, a longtime former Detroit elections official, personally carrying ballots into the TCF Center.

It wasn't true because Baxter "wasn't there" at the time, said Thomas, who added that "Daniel Baxter was across the street at a hotel sleeping." 

The number of ballots that were delivered in the early morning hours of Wednesday totaled about 15,000 to 16,000, not the 50,000 or 100,000 as some poll challengers have claimed, he said.

The ballots arrived at TCF Center on the morning of Nov. 4 after they came in on Election Day through the mail, drop boxes or the city clerk's office, Thomas said. Before they got to the center, they had to be processed, he added.

Poll inspectors count and process absentee ballots at the TCF Center in Detroit Wednesday.

Sen. Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township, pressed Thomas on whether there was a documented "chain of custody" about how the ballots moved through the system and to the TCF Center and whether the ballots were kept in sealed containers. Lucido suggested that the law should have required sealed containers.

Thomas said Lucido was "misreading" the law and "trying to extrapolate definitions into something that doesn’t exist." Both Thomas and Lucido are lawyers. McBroom asked if there was a "vulnerability" in the security of ballots as they are transported from the clerk's office to TCF Center.

It's worth considering, Thomas said, adding that he didn't see it as a "big vulnerability" because the ballots hadn't been "voted" yet as they hadn't been unsealed and counted. A log that tracks the ballots throughout the process "would be a tight chain of custody," he said.

Sen. Michael MacDonald, R-Macomb Township, brought up concerns about GOP poll challengers being "bullied" while they monitored vote counting in Detroit.

"Do you believe they were treated equally?" MacDonald asked about Republican and Democratic challengers.

The staff treated them equally, responded Thomas, who said he didn't know about workers "bullying" challengers.

"Do you have any knowledge of anything?" MacDonald eventually said to Thomas before McBroom intervened.

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, publicly thanked Thomas for working on the election and providing information about it.

"If there are people who can be convinced of the truth, your testimony together with what we heard last week ought to do it," Irwin said.

For 36 years, Thomas served as elections director under both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. Before retiring in 2017, he served under former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican from Holly who is now a state senator.