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The disturbing GOP attempt to block certification of Biden’s Michigan win, explained

Republicans in Wayne County initially prevented vote totals from being certified — but then backed down.

People gather at the Michigan State Capitol for a “Stop the Steal” rally in support of President Donald Trump on November 14 in Lansing.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Republican officials in Wayne County, Michigan, made a stunning move to block the certification of their presidential election results Tuesday — but backed down a few hours later amid intense criticism.

Wayne County is the largest county in the state, it includes the city of Detroit (where the vast majority of the population is Black), and it votes heavily for Democrats. As with all Michigan counties, its election results go to a bipartisan board of canvassers for certification that has two Democrats and two Republicans.

Usually, this is a formality. But on Tuesday, the two Republicans initially said at a meeting that they wouldn’t certify the results, claiming various “irregularities” meant they weren’t sure they could trust the count.

The move was exactly what many following Trump’s efforts to dispute the election results have long feared. Biden clearly won Michigan — he leads there by over 140,000 votes, a 2.6 percent margin. But if Wayne County’s results were excluded from the count entirely, Trump would win. Practically, the local officials’ move wouldn’t have been the last word, as the state board of canvassers would have then gotten to weigh in — but that board, too, is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans.

President Trump welcomed this effort to overturn the will of Michigan’s voters. “Wow! Michigan just refused to certify the election results! Having courage is a beautiful thing. The USA stands proud!” he tweeted. The chair of the Michigan Republican Party also praised the move and helped take credit for it.

But quickly, it fell apart. As the Wayne County board of canvassers meeting stretched onward, its Republican officials were bombarded with criticism, as news of their actions went viral nationwide. And after a few hours of this, they backed down, agreeing to certify Wayne County’s results alongside a request that Michigan’s secretary of state audit results.

This drama may not have lasted long, but it was disturbing nonetheless. Key Republicans basically made an attempt to steal the state of Michigan out of Joe Biden’s hands — and both the president and the Michigan Republican Party cheered them on.

The larger context for what happened in Michigan

The context here is that Trump can’t sustain his effort to dispute the election indefinitely. The deadlines in which states will certify their results — meaning, Biden wins in several key swing states — are fast approaching. Those certification deadlines have been on Trump’s mind. According to journalist Geraldo Rivera, Trump recently said he wants to see “what states do” in terms of certifying their results before conceding.

Except in extraordinarily close races where there’s solid evidence malfeasance occurred, certification should just be a formality — the person with the most votes wins. However, Trump has been trying to weaponize this process by spreading baseless claims of election fraud, and urging either judges or partisan Republicans involved in the process to delay or block certification.

According to the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, the idea here is that if states are somehow prevented from certifying their votes and therefore electors for Biden, he will lack 270 electoral votes, the election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, and since Republicans will control more state delegations there, they could declare Trump the winner. (This is a far-fetched scenario, but, per Costa, it’s what Trump is talking about at this point.)

Until Tuesday, the president had little success. His various lawsuits trying to block certification have not yet convinced any judges to step in. And even key Republican officials involved in the certification process, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, have resisted pressure from Trump’s team. In other important swing states, the key certifying officials are Democrats who of course wouldn’t go along with Trump’s games.

But in Michigan, the job of certification is given to a four-person State Board of Canvassers — a bipartisan body composed of two Democrats and two Republicans. There are also four-member bipartisan boards of canvassers in each county in Michigan. Historically, certification has not been a partisan matter, but theoretically these boards could deadlock along partisan lines. And last week, two longtime Michigan Republicans warned in an op-ed that such partisan shenanigans were entirely plausible.

Republicans in Wayne County initially blocked the certification of results

Michigan’s deadline to certify state results is this coming Monday, so the county boards of canvassers have been meeting to certify their respective county results. The meeting for Wayne County took place Tuesday — and it was unexpectedly dramatic. When the board of canvassers voted on whether to certify Wayne County’s results, the two Republican members, Monica Palmer and William Hartmann, voted not to.

The Republicans’ stated reason was that there were discrepancies between precincts’ counts of how many named people voted and the actual count of votes. This is known as precincts being “out of balance.”

But though many precincts were out of balance, the discrepancies were usually very small. “Most of the unbalanced Wayne County precincts reported to the board Tuesday were off by three or four votes,” Zahra Ahmad and Lauren Gibbons of MLive report. Small mistakes like that suggest clerical error rather than a massive fraud scheme — and certainly they don’t add up to anything close to Biden’s 145,000 vote lead in the state.

Regardless, Palmer and Hartmann said, they couldn’t certify the results. “Based on what I saw and went through in poll books in this canvass, I believe that we do not have complete and accurate information in those poll books,” Palmer said, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Their Democratic colleagues responded with fury, accusing them of playing political games. And very quickly, Laura Cox, the chair of Michigan’s Republican Party, praised this turn of events. “I am proud that, due to the efforts of the Michigan Republican Party, the Republican National Committee and the Trump Campaign, enough evidence of irregularities and potential voter fraud was uncovered resulting in the Wayne County Board of Canvassers refusing to certify their election results,” Cox said in a statement.

It was lost on few that the two Republicans who voted against certification are white, and were alleging problems in the mostly Black city of Detroit. Indeed, Palmer even suggested that all of Wayne County’s results except for Detroit could be certified — even though the most out-of-balance precinct, with a 27-vote discrepancy, was in the mostly white city of Livonia. “Shame on you. You are a disgrace,” the president of Detroit’s NAACP chapter, Wendell Anthony, said over Zoom at the meeting.

Soon, the news went viral nationally. Reporters discovered that Hartmann had posted racist memes mocking President Obama on his public Facebook page. He had also repeatedly posted on his public Facebook several times suggesting that the election wasn’t over yet and that there was “more to come.” He also posted links from right-wing conspiracy sites, and several months ago he retweeted President Trump saying that mail voting is “RIPE for FRAUD” and “shouldn’t be allowed.”

Trump cheered this turn of events — just as Wayne County Republicans reversed course

Biden’s statewide margin of victory over Trump is about 145,000 votes, but his margin of victory in Wayne County is 323,000 votes. So in the dubious scenario where Wayne County’s results were just thrown out entirely, Trump would lead the state.

But this was never going to be the last step in the certification process. The call will ultimately be made by the four-person statewide Board of Canvassers, though there are similarly two Democrats and two Republicans on that board (and one of those Republicans is married to a witness in one of Trump’s lawsuits alleging improprieties).

Still, the Trump campaign cheered the news that Republicans were blocking certification of votes in a county Biden won. Jenna Ellis, a lawyer for the Trump campaign, bragged that the decision was a “huge win” for Trump and claimed that, if the state board also deadlocked, the GOP state legislature “will select the electors.” (However, Michigan’s Republican state Senate majority leader said Tuesday that this is “not going to happen.”)

Then Trump himself weighed in, incorrectly claiming the state of Michigan, rather than just the Wayne County board of canvassers, refused to certify results, and praising Republicans on the board for “having courage.”

But around that time, Palmer and Hartmann decided to change course. After facing hours of intense criticism, they agreed to a deal in which they’d vote to certify Wayne County’s results after all, alongside a recommendation that Michigan’s secretary of state conduct an audit.

So the certification process in Michigan is now back on track. As of Wednesday, all counties have certified their vote totals. The statewide board of canvassers must decide whether to certify the overall results by this coming Monday.

The system only works if Republicans agree to let it work

As Trump tries to contest an election Biden clearly won, many have expressed confidence that Trump will fail because American democratic institutions are too strong for him to subvert.

But while Trump’s effort indeed likely will fail, that may be mainly because Biden’s lead is just too big. Trump would somehow have to flip three swing states Biden won into his column — a tall order.

Yet little of what’s happened since the election is confidence-inspiring about how a closer race could have played out.

The reality is that the president and many of his supporters do not respect the outcomes in states where he lost and will try whatever they can to ignore the will of the voters in those states (always citing supposed, unproven fraud as an excuse).

Overall, American democratic institutions will only continue to function if enough Republicans in key positions — state legislators, state officials, judges — agree to let them function.

And many local officials have done so. Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, has stood up to Trump’s pressure, strongly disputing his claims of fraud. Arizona’s Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich has made similar comments. GOP state legislature leaders in states Biden won have also been saying they won’t try to appoint Trump electors. Judges so far have not given Trump’s frivolous lawsuits the time of day.

But high-profile Republicans and conservative media figures have indulged Trump in his efforts to dispute the outcome. Relatively few have spoken out against it. And we saw the consequences of that in Wayne County Tuesday. Can we really be surprised if local Republicans who like and trust the president start doing what he wants them to do — trying to help him maintain power?

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