By Maggie McMillin and Nina Misuraca Ignaczak
UPDATE, Nov. 12: The Michigan Court of Claims deemed the Trump campaign’s lawsuit unlikely to succeed and denied the campaign’s request that ballot counting be halted. A spokesperson for the Michigan Attorney General called the lawsuit “meritless,” citing a “complete lack of any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of election officials.” The campaign has filed a second lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in west Michigan.
President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign filed suit Wednesday in Michigan’s Court of Claims to halt the state’s ballot count, claiming GOP poll challengers were denied “meaningful access” to election workers counting ballots.
GOP challengers began congregating outside Detroit’s TCF Center — the Central Counting Board, where all the city’s absentee ballots are being tabulated — Wednesday afternoon, chanting “stop the vote” as police blocked access to the building. The Detroit Health Department said officers were enforcing a capacity limit due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to WXYZ.
Ken Kollman, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, compared the events that transpired at TCF Center to the extended election challenge of 2000 when George W. Bush challenged the count in Florida (remember the hanging chads?).
“We are in uncharted territory here,” Kollman told Detour. “The closest to this we’ve come is in 2000 in Florida. For one side to call for the halt to counting valid ballots is something I cannot recall happening.”
Conservative voters showed up to TCF after GOP strategists sent emails requesting their help securing a “fair and just” election. “I think any American citizen who cares about free and fair elections with transparency would be outraged by what we have witnessed here over the last two days,” one poll challenger from Owosso told 7 Action News on Wednesday, raising concerns about ballot collection. Other GOP challengers claimed they were being treated unfairly.
Democratic attorney Mark Brewer, who was at TCF representing Michigan’s Democratic Party, told Crain’s Detroit Business that GOP poll challengers “have not been denied access. They’ve been all over this place — more here than probably the law permits.”
GOP challengers had been coming to TCF Center as early as Tuesday night, Brewer added.
Danielle North, a challenger with the Michigan Dems, said election workers were trying to do their jobs “while being intimidated, challenged and questioned about their work.”
“I was trained by the Michigan Democratic Party as a poll challenger to assist with that exact kind of voter suppression that is occurring at the TCF Center today,” she said. “We are calm, watchful and protecting the vote.”
Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office released a statement saying that it had not yet been notified of the Trump campaign’s lawsuit by the Michigan Court of Claims. “Michigan’s elections have always been conducted transparently, with access provided for both political parties and the public, using a robust system of checks and balances to ensure that all ballots are counted fairly and accurately.” Later Wednesday evening, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
The lawsuit was filed shortly before Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was called as the winner in Michigan. The Trump campaign’s Michigan lawsuit is one of several in battleground states — it lost a suit seeking to halt the ballot count in Nevada Tuesday and also filed suit in Pennsylvania Wednesday. Experts predicted such lawsuits would be filed to challenge election results, and have said that wrongdoing will be hard to prove.
Kollman noted that election commissions are composed of an even split of Republicans and Democrats, adding that “it’s currently mysterious what basis the Trump campaign has to ask the courts to halt the counting of the ballots.”
The TCF Center allows 402 poll challengers: 134 affiliated with the Republican party, 134 with the Democratic party and 134 with nonpartisan groups. This is because there are technically 134 election boards all working together at TCF, and Michigan election law allows one challenger per political party or organization at each election board.
Ballot challenging on the scale that was seen at the TCF Center Wednesday is uncommon. “It seems to be an unprecedented and concerted effort to influence the procedure,” Chris Trebilcock, a veteran elections law attorney with Clark Hill PLC in Detroit told Detour. He added that he couldn’t think of another election in U.S. history where challengers had convened in such large numbers — at least not during an original count. “Obviously, a lot of people flew down and participated in the recount in Florida in 2000,” Trebilcock said. “But nothing like this.”
A poll challenger is appointed by a political party or a qualified interest group to observe the election process. They may challenge the actions of election workers if they believe that election laws are not being followed. At an absentee vote counting board like TCF, this amounts to inspecting ballots, poll books, and other voter records. For example, one Republican poll challenger told the Detroit Free Press that she challenged a ballot because the listed birth date was later than the voter registration date.
Challengers aren’t allowed to take any pictures in the polling location. They must have an official identification card from the party or organization that they represent, and they can be expelled from a polling place for not wearing a mask or if election workers deem them “disorderly.” Both of those rules were enforced on Monday when a woman refused to cover her nose with her mask and a man (wearing a Halloween mask) yelled racist epithets at poll workers.
TCF was expected to be a hotspot for poll challengers since before the election when groups like the Michigan Conservative Coalition urged conservatives to sign up to serve as poll challengers in Democratic-leaning cities like Detroit and Flint.
There has been a special focus on the Central Counting Board from Democrats and Republicans alike after absentee ballot counting issues in Detroit’s primary election left many absentee precincts ineligible for recounts.
Trebilcock said he doesn’t believe poll challengers always have the training necessary to improve election integrity.
“My experience has been that often poll challengers don’t fully understand the process or their role. They oftentimes raise challenges that don’t have merit and slow the process down,” he said. “Of course, they have a right to watch the process and watch the system. [But] I have every amount of confidence in the election process that’s been followed by election officials, whether it’s at the TCF Center or in any other jurisdiction in the state.”
Ashley Woods Branch contributed reporting.