For three hours, an obscure county board in Michigan was at the center of U.S. politics

By Kayla Ruble, and ,

DETROIT — “All those opposed, say, ‘Nay.’ ”

The two Republicans said, “Nay.”

Then, for 15 seconds, nobody in the crowded, plexiglass-divided room said anything at all.

Eventually, Jonathan Kinloch — one of two Democrats on the four-member Wayne County Board of Canvassers — turned to speak to his Republican colleagues. Their “nay” votes meant this little-known government board had failed at its most basic task: certifying the results of the 2020 election in Michigan’s most populous county.

“There is no reason under the sun for us to not certify this election,” Kinloch said. “I think forever that this board will have to live with the fact that we have allowed external, non-relevant issues to impact this election today.”

He was wrong about “forever.”

The board’s decision would stand for only about three hours. But — in those three hours on Tuesday — American politics centered on those four people and that small room.

The Republicans said their decision stemmed from vote discrepancies discovered in a number of county precincts — a concern they have raised insistently, even though the number of votes at issue is too small to affect the election’s outcome. State law requires the board to resolve concerns like that before it votes on certification, experts said.

But immediately, President Trump and his allies celebrated the board’s vote as validation for their baseless, winless, hopeless campaign to undo President-elect Joe Biden’s victory by hurling unsupported accusations of widespread voter fraud. They said Wayne County was the first step. Next, they’d overturn Biden’s win in all of Michigan. And then . . .

Inside the room, however, the meeting wasn’t over.

After the vote, the two Republicans had to face a lineup of poll workers, clerks and voters, who berated them for declining to certify an election in which 878,000 people had voted.

After three hours of anger, the Republicans agreed to a compromise, and Wayne County’s election was certified after all.

Their experience signaled the enormous pressure that Trump and his Republican allies have put on the once-obscure offices and officers that administer American elections, by asking them to give legal weight to his outlandish claims.

In this case, it also demonstrated the mighty pushback that can arise from voters when those officers appear to give Trump what he wants.

Inside the Wayne County annex building in downtown Detroit, the board members took their seats at the front of the room. They were divided, politically and literally. Two White Republicans sat on the left. Two Black Democrats sat on the right. Between each one was a clear plexiglass divider, a measure to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Most of the time, this is a board nobody comes to watch.

Its task is to decide whether to certify the results of Wayne County’s elections and pass the decision on to a similar board at the state level. When the state board certifies the election results, Michigan can send its 16 electors to the electoral college to finalize the presidential vote.

It’s usually a routine process. But there had never been an election like this one — in which the president and many in his party were refusing to accept a clear defeat. Trump was even claiming to have won Michigan; he was actually behind by 148,000 votes. Trump’s conspiracy theories often revolved around large cities with significant numbers of Black voters and Democrats. In Michigan, he had focused on one place: Detroit.

Here.

So the seats were full. Republican activists and lawyers. Democratic lawyers. Reporters. And — in the back — roughly 12 employees of the county elections office. They had worked for days to count and audit Wayne County’s results. Behind them, poll books from the county’s 1,115 precincts spread across more than 40 cities and townships were stacked up along the wall.

“Our canvassers really did a heck of a job,” Gregory Mahar, the county’s director of elections, told the board. All told, voters in the county had cast 878,000 ballots, including 566,000 absentee ones. Biden had won the county by more than 350,000 votes.

Mahar said, however, that there had been “out of balance” precincts, where there were discrepancies between the number of voters and the number of ballots counted. This type of error is common, Mahar said, and often due to human error or computer malfunction. A jammed machine might cause a ballot to get counted twice. Out-of-date software might result in incorrect totals.

According to Mahar, the counts in 28 percent of Detroit’s precincts and absentee counting boards were still out of balance without a clear explanation. But the size of the errors was small — a difference of one or two votes per precinct without a clear explanation of why the imbalance occurred, affecting a ballpark amount of about 450 total votes.

“This is not a novel nuance, is it?” asked Allen Wilson, a regional United Auto Workers official and one of the board’s two Democratic members.

Mahar said it had happened in the past. Just months earlier, during the August primary, even more precincts had come in out of balance.

But Monica Palmer, one of the two Republican members, said she was not convinced. Palmer, a schools activist in the wealthy Grosse Pointe area, said in an interview Wednesday that she had spent months pressing Detroit and Wayne County election authorities to fix problems where precincts are chronically out of balance. They had not.

Now, Palmer said, she would not accept the same excuses.

She said she had no contact with the Trump campaign and was unmoved by claims by Trump or his supporters about the Michigan vote. She said she was solely focused on what she said were Wayne County’s chronic problems with unbalanced precinct totals.

She says she knew that Biden had won Michigan and did not intend to block or overturn his victory. But she had one lever to pull, to force local election authorities to solve the problem: She could vote “nay.”

If she and her fellow Republican member did that, then the decision on whether to certify Wayne County’s results would be kicked up to a statewide board, also split two-to-two.

That would take another few days. Maybe the state would work harder to solve Wayne County’s problems. And local authorities would take her warnings seriously next time.

“I wasn’t taking votes away from anybody,” Palmer said. “I was allowing the state to find the explanations.”

William Hartmann, the other GOP member of the panel, declined to comment Wednesday.

The board was set up with an even bipartisan divide, so that one party couldn’t force through false results. But, in this case, that also meant one party could block results, if it chose to.

It chose to.

Kinloch attempted to end the discussion before Palmer, the Republican, was done asking questions. After both Republicans voted “nay,” Palmer blamed local election officials: “I believe that we do not have complete and accurate information.”

Within 10 minutes, the Michigan GOP had a statement out, praising the board and calling the imbalances “deeply troubling.”

Palmer says she meant her vote as a narrow protest aimed at local election practices, not a decision that would swing the election.

But within hours, Trump and his aides had cast it into something else: a momentum-swinging win.

Since Election Day, Trump and his allies had been seeking to overturn Biden’s victory — maintaining a public illusion that victory was just around the corner, despite getting pummeled almost daily in the courts.

Suddenly — in that small room in Detroit — Trump’s fantasy world seemed to have converged with reality. They’d won something.

Within an hour, one of Trump’s lawyers was celebrating on Twitter.

Jenna Ellis cast the vote as the start of a chain reaction that would overturn all of Michigan’s vote.

“If the state board follows suit, the Republican state legislator will select the electors,” she wrote on Twitter. (Republican leaders in the state legislature have so far rejected this idea.)

In the moments after the first vote, with the Republicans declining to certify the results, Democratic board member Kinloch said he was so disappointed, he just wanted to leave.

“I totally forgot about the fact that we were not finished with the agenda,” he said later.

It was Palmer who reminded him: They weren’t done.

There were dozens of people waiting to speak.

Some had been wrangled ahead of time by Detroit-area Democratic congresswomen Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib. Dingell said she’d been worried about the possibility of a deadlocked board and had been telling activist groups to be ready: “I found the president of the AFL-CIO hunting in the woods,” Dingell said.

Election workers stood in the back, arms crossed, silent.

Jennifer Redmond, the deputy chair of elections for Wayne County, choked up as she addressed the board. She recounted how she and her staff had worked 16 hours a day, through a pandemic, to double-check the results for the county’s more than 1,100 precincts, where 878,000 ballots had to be counted in a nearly impossible two weeks.

“We have been here tirelessly,” Redmond said, calling the decision a “slap in the face.” The workers flanking her, most of them Black men and women, looked on in silence.

Other commenters, calling in on Zoom, compared Palmer and Hartmann to segregationist former Alabama governor George Wallace and the racist onetime Birmingham, Ala., public safety commissioner Bull Connor.

At one point, Palmer told those watching that she was fine certifying the results in precincts that had been corrected or for which there were explanations. This comment only increased the ire, in part because many in the audience thought she was singling out mostly Black Detroit.

This decision, one caller said, is “what racism looks like.”

Another raged until the end of his two minutes was approaching.

“Mute me like you’ve muted the city of Detroit, go ahead and push the button,” he said.

Other speakers noted state law. The county’s corporation counsel, Janet Anderson-Davis, said that the law requires the Board of Canvassers to certify the election if the county has provided it election results. Any objections are supposed to be resolved before the board votes.

“I do not have faith that the poll books are complete and accurate,” Palmer said.

But Kinloch, the Democratic member, said he saw an opening.

“As I started listening to the comments and you felt the real anger coming from the callers, and I said, ‘Maybe there’s an opportunity [here],’ ” he said.

Kinloch stepped away from the table and into a backroom, where he began dialing up anyone he could think of, from Democratic Party leaders to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).

Eventually, he said, he got on the phone with the secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections statewide. Would they agree to do a comprehensive audit of the entire election process in Wayne County, if the Republicans agreed to certify the results first?

They said yes, Kinloch said.

At 8:45 p.m., he called a 10-minute recess. The board members went into a private room, and Kinloch offered his compromise. Palmer agreed, saying a more rigorous audit of the Detroit results was all she had wanted all along.

Around 9 p.m., they came back.

They called the vote over again, and this time, all four voted “yea.”

The move was so abrupt that people in the room were stunned, confused about what had just happened. “Wait, so is it done?” asked a sheriff’s deputy, there to provide security.

Afterward, the two Democratic members of the board rejoiced.

“I felt it incumbent upon myself to fight as hard as I could to make sure that every vote in the city of Detroit specifically was heard because we have fought long and hard and tirelessly to ensure that people of color have the right to have their voice heard,” Wilson said. “I was not comfortable sitting at the table today with knowing that the African American vote was potentially going to get disenfranchised.”

Palmer, the GOP member, said the experience had left her shaken.

“Last night was heartbreaking,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday. “I sat in that chair for two hours listening to people attack me” as a racist attempting to disenfranchise Detroit residents. She said police escorted her out of the building after the meeting and that she has received death threats.

On Wednesday, the secretary of state’s office declined to answer questions about whether or when it would conduct the audit that Wayne County’s board requested.

For his part, Trump on Wednesday continued to tweet baseless allegations that Michigan had been stolen. As reality — again — diverged from the illusion, Trump stuck with the illusion. “I win Michigan!” he wrote on Twitter.

In Michigan, the next step is the statewide Board of Canvassers, a board with the same partisan makeup. It will meet on Monday. One of its Republican members has already expressed skepticism about voting results in Detroit.

“We need to be prepared for the same thing to happen at the state board,” said Dingell, the Detroit-area Democratic congresswoman.

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