Michigan county that backed Trump seeks review of 2020 election

John Russell and Craig Mauger

Correction: Cheboygan County Commissioner Ron Williams voted against the audit Tuesday. An earlier version of this story indicated otherwise.

Cheboygan — The board of commissioners in a northern Michigan county that supported Donald Trump voted to pursue an audit of its election Tuesday, pointing to the ongoing tension among Republicans about the former president's loss.

Nearly eight months after Election Day, the GOP-controlled Cheboygan County Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 to send a letter to Jonathan Brater, the state elections director, requesting a recount of its ballots and a review of whether an "unauthorized computer" manipulated the tallies.

The 25,000-person county is at the top of the Lower Peninsula, and 64% of its voters supported Trump, the Republican incumbent, in November. Only 34% backed Democrat Joe Biden. But for months, Cheboygan County officials have been discussing the idea of examining the election results amid a nationwide push among some in the GOP to question the outcome and to investigate unsubstantiated theories of voter fraud.

The Cheboygan Board of Commissioners listens to a constituent during its  monthly meeting Tuesday, June 22, 2021.

During an April meeting of the county board's elections subcommittee, Stefanie Lambert Junttila, a lawyer who's been involved with unsuccessful suits to overturn the election, offered to send a team to Cheboygan County to do a so-called "forensic analysis."

Months of discussions culminated with Tuesday's meeting, which drew about 90 people. Many members of the public who spoke supported the letter while others opposed it.

Rob Ross of Cheboygan said the push for a recount came from "people who want to diminish our votes."

"This is a waste of time, and I am ashamed," Ross said. "The machines have been tested and every time the numbers matched the totals. This conspiracy is ridiculous."

Biden won Michigan by 154,000 votes, or 3 percentage points. A series of court rulings, bipartisan boards of canvassers and dozens of audits performed by election officials have reinforced the outcome.

Still, theories about the vote have persisted in Michigan and other battleground states. The Cheboygan County letter from John Wallace, chairman of the county board, says the county would engage "an accredited election auditor" if the state approves an audit.

"As commissioners, we have heard from many of our constituents expressing concerns/questions related to the November 3, 2020 election," according to a copy of the letter posted on the county's website. "We believe we have a responsibility to address these concerns/questions."

It's unclear how Brater, who works for Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, will handle Cheboygan County's request. On Tuesday, Benson spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer said the state will review the letter once it's received and "respond to the commission directly."

In May, Brater sent a letter to the county, saying the board itself can't require local election officials to provide access to their voting equipment for an audit.

"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.

Rob Burnell addresses the Cheboygan Board of Commissioners at its monthly meeting Tuesday, June 22, 2021. The board voted 4-3 to send a letter to Michigan's election official to request an audit of 2020 presidential election results.

Tuesday's vote in Cheboygan County came the same day state Rep. Steve Carra introduced a proposal to require a statewide audit of the election in the Michigan House. Last week, hundreds of Trump supporters gathered in Lansing to call on the state Legislature to pursue an audit, similar to what's been occurring in Arizona's Maricopa County.

Beth Bridgman of Cheboygan has been the most vocal Cheboygan County residents pushing for a so-called "forensic audit" of the 2020 results. In an interview, she voiced opposition to the county commissioners' letter, saying she was hoping for a more expansive review of the software and equipment used in the election.

"There’s nobody looking at whether or not the machines are being hacked in real-time," Bridgman said.

The campaign for another review of the November vote puts Michigan Republican officials in a difficult spot between members of the party who want to move onto the 2022 election and members of the party who want to continue relitigating what happened in 2020.

Commissioner Ron Williams said he voted against sending the letter because the "overwhelming majority of people" who have spoken to him regarding the audit didn't support it.

In an interview with Detroit's WDIV-TV on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said there is no question in his mind that Biden won the state.

Benson has previously said efforts aimed at another audit are attempts to perpetuate the "big lie" that Trump actually won the presidential race.

"Those sincerely wanting credible audits of our elections should be reminded that Michigan election officials — including 1,300 Republican, Democrat and non-partisan local clerks — have conducted more than 250 actual, by the book, transparent audits of the November 2020 election," Benson said last week. "And each confirmed that it was safe and secure, and the results are an accurate reflection of the will of the people."

County clerks already performed procedural audits in randomly selected precincts across the state. The reviews included hand counts of all votes cast in the precincts in the U.S. Senate race. The Michigan Bureau of Elections and local election officials also examined absentee counting boards in four large municipalities, including Detroit and Grand Rapids, and conducted a risk-limiting audit exercise