Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10 p.m. Nov. 17 after the Wayne County Board of Canvassers voted to certify the election after initially refusing. An earlier story with a different headline stated the board refused to certify.
Michigan’s presidential election was thrown into temporary chaos Tuesday night as Republican canvassers in the state’s largest and most Democratic county refused to certify results — only to backtrack a few hours later.
In a 2020 twist, after President Trump had already tweeted a celebratory message, the dramatic vote reconsideration took place while the Wayne County Board of Canvassers was inadvertently on mute to the public during a Zoom broadcast.
Earlier Tuesday, the board voted deadlocked along party lines 2-2, with Republicans citing concerns that a large number of Detroit precincts were “out of balance,” meaning that the numbers of voters who signed into polling places did not match the number of ballots there.
But after hours of withering criticism from public commenters who accused them of disenfranchising Black voters in the state’s largest city, GOP canvassers Monica Palmer and William Hartmann relented.
Under a revised motion, announced by Hartmann, canvassers voted unanimously to certify the Wayne County election results but demanded a “comprehensive audit” by Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Jonathan Kinloch, one of two Democrats on the board, said the audit will commence after the Board of State Canvassers certifies Michigan election results, which could happen as soon as Nov. 23.
The promise of an audit swayed GOP colleagues, Kinloch told Bridge Michigan in a late-night phone interview, noting that canvassers want Benson to share results of that audit with GOP leadership in the Michigan Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
They also hope to present potential reforms to the state Legislature to prevent similar issues in the future, “because we don’t want to keep being here every election cycle, Kinloch said.
“I really am very appreciative of my colleagues finding a pathway that we could both support.”
Wayne County has struggled with unbalanced precincts in past elections, which could prohibit some ballots from counting in the event of a statewide recount, but that hadn’t prevented canvassers from certifying results before.
The initial vote drew a swift rebuke, particularly because Palmer proposed certifying the entire county, but not Detroit, a city that is 85 percent non-white.
“We should [certify] this election like we are supposed to,” Kinloch said during the initial debate. “We aren’t going to be picking out people of color.”
“I smell politics,” he added.
The hearing followed weeks of unproven accusations and five lawsuits from Trump and other Republicans about irregularities on election night in Detroit. Among other things, they have claimed poll challengers didn’t have unfettered access to review the counting of absentee ballots.
Unofficial results show Democrat Joe Biden winning by 146,000 votes in Michigan, which awards 16 electoral votes when the Electoral College meets Dec 14. In Wayne County, Biden beat Trump by roughly 241,000 votes, 552,000 to 311,000.
A deadlock would have punted Wayne County election results to the State Board of Canvassers, which would have had 10 days to complete the review. Already, Republican member Norm Shinkle, whose wife served as a GOP poll challenger in Detroit, has told Bridge Michigan he “makes no predictions” on his vote.
And, for a few hours anyway, the prospect of state canvassers giving Michigan to Trump bolstered his supporters after his campaign has lost a series of legal challenges in recent days.
Bipartisan experts disagreed and said the election would have been certified by the state and not changed Biden’s victory. But the debate sowed doubts and fueled discord in a process that has been riddled with them since the Nov. 3 election.
“Shame on you for leading to this level of corruption,” the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP, told GOP canvassers on Zoom after the vote.
“You have disavowed your rights to even sit in the seats you occupy. You are a disgrace as it relates to the ability to have a fair and impartial election in this nation.”
“Glad to see common sense prevailed in the end,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan wrote on Twitter, thanking residents who spoke out in public comment. “Every court on the Detroit election results has ruled that Trump’s claims of error were baseless. Had the Board of Canvassers disenfranchised 1.4 million Wayne County voters over partisan politics, it would have been an historically shameful act.”
Republicans including Palmer have pointed to lingering issues with Detroit’s ballot counts. She initially voted against certifying because she said final tabulations showed that 71 percent of Detroit’s absentee precincts didn’t balance. That means that the number of people who signed into poll books didn’t equal the number of ballots in voting machines.
There can be simple explanations for those problems, such as voters getting tired of long lines and leaving, or paper jams that cause ballots to be read twice. In most instances, the ballot counts were off by less than four votes.
But Palmer noted that Detroit had 72 percent of precincts out of balance in August, when the canvassers persuaded Benson to recruit thousands of workers to Detroit and persuade the state’s former elections director, Chris Thomas, out of retirement to assist with the effort.
“I do not have good faith that the poll books were complete and accurate.” Palmer said.
She also noted that Livonia had problems with the election and unbalanced precincts. After the deadlock, she proposed certifying the rest of the county, excluding Detroit, which favored Biden 232,908 votes to 12,654 for Trump.
The idea went nowhere, but drew heaps of criticism.
The Republican canvassers, Palmer and Hartmann, had caused controversy before the canvass vote by visiting the TCF Center in Detroit to view the counting of absentee ballots, a role that fellow board member Kinloch had questioned and raised as a conflict of interest.
Palmer asserted that she was going as an observer, not as a party challenger. Likewise, the wife of Shinkle — the state canvassing board member — was at TCF as a Republican poll challenger.
“There is no reason under the sun for us not to certify this election,” Kinloch argued.
“A precinct out of balance is based on human error,” he added. “You need to wrap your head around the fact that individuals come to do their job for one day. .. It is not even realistic for anyone to stand here and try to imply that votes were cast improperly.”
The balancing issue is important because Michigan is one of few states that forbid recounts in precincts whose books are out of balance.
Ultimately, after more than two hours of excoriating public comment over Zoom, Palmer and Hartmann changed their minds.
The unanimous vote came the day of the deadline for all counties to complete their canvasses before sending them to the state.
Several of Michigan’s largest counties, including Saginaw, Ottawa, Ingham and Genesee County, also had unbalanced precincts that could not be reconciled this year, but that did not prevent their canvassers from unanimously certifying results.
In Ingham County, Clerk Barb Byrum told Bridge some precincts weren’t balanced and COVID posed obstacles to the canvassing process. Still, the board finished its canvass at 1 p.m. Monday.
“Although their party affiliation is necessary to allow for proper canvassing of the election – two Democrats and two Republicans – they didn’t play partisan politics,” Byrum said. “They took their oath and responsibilities seriously.”
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.