Cheboygan board can't require access to voting machines, Michigan elections director says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A county commission in rural northern Michigan can't require local election officials to provide access to their voting equipment for a so-called "forensic audit," says a letter from the state's election director, Jonathan Brater.

The letter dated last week comes as the Republican-controlled Cheboygan County Board of Commissioners contemplates whether to allow an outside group to audit the county's voting machines amid an ongoing push by supporters of former President Donald Trump to question the results of the 2020 election. 

"The Michigan election law entrusts clerks with choosing and maintaining their voting systems and does not provide any authority for county commissions to take control of this equipment," Brater wrote Cheboygan County Clerk Karen Brewster on Thursday.

FILE - In this Tuesday, July 7, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump listens during a "National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America's Schools," event in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

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Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden in November, but the former president and his backers have levied unsubstantiated claims that there was widespread fraud as they've sought to overturn and undermine the result.

Biden won Michigan by more than 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points. A series of court rulings and reviews of the votes have upheld the results.

Still, an ongoing debate over the validity of the election has spurred debate in 25,000-person Cheboygan County, which is at the top of the Lower Peninsula. Trump won the county with about 64% of the vote. Biden got 34%.

Asked what the last issue was that was so heavily debated before the Cheboygan commissioners, county commission Chairman John Wallace responded, "We have not had one in my history on the board."

Wallace said he has been on the board for about 25 years.

A group of local residents called the Cheboygan County Freedom Fighters have pushed for an audit of the county's election equipment, Wallace said.

"They believe that the election was fragmented, and the Dominion voting machines were susceptible to somebody hacking them," he said.

Jonathan Brater

Critics of the 2020 election have focused on Dominion, the voting technology used in Antrim County, a northern Michigan county where a series of human errors led to initial results incorrectly showing Biden had won the Republican heavy county.

Antrim County officials didn't update all of the equipment after adding contests to the ballot design, leading to jumbled unofficial results. The reasons for the problems and the incorrect unofficial results were quickly noticed and eventually fixed but led to a wave of conspiracy theories about Dominion.

Wallace picked three commissioners to serve on a subcommittee focused on the election and to make a recommendation for what the county should do, concerning a potential audit. That recommendation is expected within the next month, Wallace said.

On Tuesday morning, the county commissioners held a regular meeting where more than a dozen people spoke out on the idea of an audit. Some supported it as a way to ensure election integrity. Others opposed it as an unnecessary expense that's meant to make people question the results.

The debate occurs as a Republican-backed audit of equipment in Arizona continues.

"This isn’t about the integrity of the people who worked at the booths. … This is about a lot of things that you don’t understand unless you’ve been paying attention," said Betsy Gahn, who expressed support for an audit of the equipment in Cheboygan County.

But David Martin of Cheboygan labeled the idea "absurd" and said the commissioners should pay for an audit out of their own pockets.

Wallace said it remains unclear what will happen in Cheboygan County, who would pay for an audit if it occurs and whether the commissioners can even require an audit take place.

Brewster, the county clerk, didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Asked why Cheboygan County had become a focus of those questioning the 2020 election, Wallace initially laughed. He said the area is predominantly Republican but, he continued, “There’s no indication outwardly anyways that there’s anything wrong."

In his letter to Brewster, Brater, the Michigan elections director, said interest in granting a third party access to the equipment for an audit "may stem from misplaced reliance on ongoing misinformation — which has been repeatedly, comprehensively, and definitively debunked — regarding both Dominion Voting Systems and the error that occurred in the initial reported unofficial results in Antrim County."

"As you know, the Bureau of Elections in cooperation with the Antrim County Clerk and a number of local election clerks conducted a public hand count of every paper ballot cast for President in Antrim County, which confirmed that the ballot tabulators counted ballots accurately," Brater added.

That hand count provided a net gain of only 12 votes for Trump from the certified results, a .07% shift