Has certifying Detroit’s election always been so politically polarized?

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Detroit residents line up at the polls on Nov. 3 for in-person voting. (BridgeDetroit photo by Ralph Jones)

After an intense 5½ -hour meeting, a 2-2 deadlock and a rollercoaster of emotions, Wayne County’s election was finally certified Tuesday night. Yet the politics aren’t over yet as both Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, chairwoman Monica Palmer and member William Hartmann, signed affidavits to rescind their votes on Wednesday night. 

While the vote cannot be reversed because the 14-day deadline has passed, one might ask: Has certifying elections and Board of Canvassers meetings always been this politically polarized? 

The short answer is no. 

Partisan members making nonpartisan decisions

The history, the expectation and the norm up to now has been that certifying elections are uncontroversial decisions, according to experts. Ken Kollman, professor at Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan said the politicization of certifying the election is a “new period in uncharted territory.”

The board in each of Michigan’s 83 counties consists of four canvassers — two Republicans and two Democrats — and even though they are nominated by political parties, they are meant to stay impartial when fulfilling their ministerial duties. 

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“This is not a place for inserting your partisan leanings,” Kollman told BridgeDetroit. “This is a place to decide based on evidence. That’s how it’s been and that’s how it’s intended to be.” 

A canvasser’s role is to balance precincts by confirming the number of ballots cast matches the number of voters in a poll book. However, discrepancies are common due to simple explanations such as clerical errors, voters accidently mailing an empty envelope and voters leaving a precinct without voting. The members attempt to rectify the discrepancies and provide explanations if possible. Once the process is complete, the board votes to certify the election.

“We are not supposed to be biased and our opinions do not matter,” vice chair of the board Jonathan Kinloch explained to BridgeDetroit.

Former members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers told BridgeDetroit that previous votes and decisions were often unanimous and the current atmosphere is “unprecedented” because out of balance precincts are not unusual. 

“I could never imagine the Republicans who were on the board when I was on the board pulling the kind of stuff that the current members did… that was ridiculous and horrible,” said former Democratic member John Knappmann. “It was pure politics and that’s not the job of the board of canvassers.” 

Michael Hamner, research director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, believes the current dynamic of the Board of Canvassers is “highly unusual, if not completely unique.”

Detroit has had a history of out-of-balance precincts but Knappmann said those elections were always certified unanimously. While he was on the board, all the members, regardless of political affiliation, “really worked together to try to have a decent, fair election”. The chairmanship would alternate between a Democrat and a Republican. 

Former Republican member Joseph Xuereb said that while he was on the board, precincts were constantly out-of-balance, usually by “a vote or two” and it would be “unusual when things wouldn’t be unanimous.” 

“But this year’s a little different… I just don’t know what evidence they had to suggest there shouldn’t have been a certification,” he said. “I don’t know how bad the numbers were this time.”

In most cases, the precincts were off by less than four votes, which is not unusual. Roughly 400 votes were unbalanced out of the nearly 250,000 votes cast, the Detroit Free Press reported. In fact, the board certified the election in August with significantly greater clerical errors, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said during an MSNBC interview.  

Kollman, the political science professor, compared the role of the board to the role of a sheriff or judge: while they can run under a party label, they are not supposed to “infuse their political affiliation into their decision making.” 

So what’s changed?

What’s different this year is the sitting president’s efforts to overturn the election results. Detroit’s election process has come under the microscope especially with President Trump refusing to concede and his subsequent smear campaign against the city. 

“This is caused by the actions and organized effort of the Trump campaign and that’s the only thing that’s different this year,” Kollman explained. 

He said that investigative journalists and researchers reported nationwide that the Trump campaign had plans in place “to do this kind of thing” in case they lost.

Knappmann, the former Democratic member, has been following the election and certification process closely and he believes the presidential campaign put pressure on the two GOP members of the board, especially given the fact that President Trump called Palmer and Hartmann after the certification meeting on Tuesday. In a late Tuesday night text to Kinloch, the vice chair, Palmer said she was receiving death threats “from the right and left” and ended up writing an affidavit to rescind her vote on Wednesday.

“It’s too bad because I’m not sure these members even really knew what was being asked of them,” Knapmann said. “I can tell you no president ever called me about my job on the Board of Canvassers.”

Kinloch said canvassers do not conduct investigations and cannot look into any of the issues the GOP members raised as concerns. He expressed his disappointment around the politicization of the board and hopes things will change. 

“I’m very frustrated and very saddened by the fact that they are creating this noise around a lawfully certified election and are playing into the unfortunately polarizing political atmosphere that we’re in right now.” he said. “We are not supposed to be biased. Whether we are supporting anything in the universe, our job is basically to review and approve what we saw inside of the canvas.” 

“That’s it.”


This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

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