CORRECTION, Nov. 12: This article was updated with information about what happens when the county board of canvassers fails to certify results. Results are sent to the state board of canvassers for certification; the decision is not taken to court, as previously stated.
Michigan is now in the canvassing stage of the post-election process. The unofficial count is in, and county canvassing boards throughout the state are working to verify it. The canvass is a double-check of the ballot counting process that is mandated by state law and happens after each election. That’s true of every state, although the makeup of canvassing boards vary.
The process is of particular interest this year, as state results are being challenged by President Donald Trump’s campaign and falsely discredited through misinformation campaigns.
What is the canvass?
The canvass verifies the ballot counting process by double checking that all votes were documented and counted properly.
During the canvassing process, a county board of two Republicans and two Democrats reviews documents related to the vote. Canvassing boards ensure that the number of voters in each precinct matches the number of ballots cast and address irregularities like improperly spoiled ballots and inconsistencies between paper ballots and electronic voting records. The board can also adjust vote totals if they find obvious errors in vote tallies.
It was during the canvass in August, for example, that the Wayne County Board of Canvassers found problems with absentee vote counts in Detroit’s primary. The election results were correct, but precincts were unbalanced: the number of votes counted did not match the number of ballots cast or the number of votes recorded. This clerical error made many Detroit precincts ineligible for a recount, and officials worried about the consequences of similar inconsistencies if a recount were to be required in the general election.
Each county canvassing board certifies elections for all local, countywide and district offices. Statewide races are certified by the state board of canvassers.
Is canvassing the same as a recount?
No. Canvassing is a routine part of every election and looks specifically for any inconsistencies in voting records. A recount occurs when it is requested (and funded by) a candidate or, in statewide races, would be triggered automatically if there were a margin of 2,000 votes or less.
If a recount of a local, county or district-wide election is ordered, the county canvassing board conducts it.
Who are the county canvassers?
There are 83 county canvassing boards, one for each county in the state. Members of the boards are nominated by county committees of the Republican and Democratic parties.
Wayne County’s canvassing board consists of Republicans William Hartmann and Monica Palmer (Chairperson of the board) and Democrats Allen Wilson and Jonathan Kinloch (Vice-chairperson). The bipartisan commission is intended to be a neutral party; Kinloch told BridgeDetroit that canvassers are expected “to stay above the fray when it comes to conducting our ministerial duties as canvassers.”
In response to the mistakes made in Detroit’s primary election, the board unanimously requested that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson “appoint a monitor to supervise the training and administration” of poll workers in Detroit. Palmer said she wasn’t sure if the city’s primary issues came down to “human error or intentional mistake,” and Kinloch described it as a “perfect storm:” a record number of absentee ballots and low election worker turnout because of COVID. City clerk Janice Winfrey has said that the errors were the result of a labor-intensive process and people making mistakes after working long hours.
Palmer observed the absentee ballot counting process at TCF Center on Election Day. Although she did not serve as a formal challenger, Kinloch criticized her presence at TCF, telling Bridge Magazine that “it is not appropriate for those who will be rendering decisions and certifications of an election and addressing any potential challenges in a recount to be engaged in the election process at the front end.”
Palmer has also drawn criticism and a formal complaint for alleged conflicts of interest in Grosse Pointe’s Board of Education election — she is the president of a PAC that advertised in the race.
The board has been conducting their canvass via Zoom and was interrupted by an explicit and threatening “Zoom bomb” on Wednesday.
At least three of the four canvassers must certify election results before the board can send them on to the state. If more than one canvasser believes that election law has been violated and decides not to certify the results, the decision is passed on to the state board of canvassers. The state board then has 10 days to certify the results.
Are audits part of the canvassing process?
An audit is an official inspection of records and results performed by an independent organization. The canvass itself could be considered a kind of audit; Hartmann likened the process to “an audit of your checkbook.”
In addition to the canvass, official audits of statewide results are required by Michigan law. This year Michigan is implementing Risk Limiting Audits, a “gold standard” among audits that allow for a mathematical analysis of the results without a total recount. These provide an added layer of confidence about the accuracy of election results, according to Ben Adida, executive director of nonpartisan voting technology company VotingWorks.
When is canvassing complete?
The county canvass process began on Nov. 5 and will finish on Tuesday, Nov. 17, when all county canvassing boards must report their results to the Secretary of State.
After Nov. 17, the four-person state board of canvassers will certify the results on Nov. 23. A certification from the state board of canvassers means that, at the state level, the board is in agreement that election law was followed and the results are official.
If the state board of canvassers is unable to reach a consensus, the courts will likely step in. “The remedies are a court order, including contempt of court, if necessary, and the court [certifying the election results] itself if it absolutely has to,” former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer told Michigan Advance. This slows down the process of appointing electors, he said, but it can’t stop the process altogether.
Brewer told Michigan Advance that board members have “fairly often” been unable to reach a consensus on ballot issues, but have never deadlocked over a presidential candidate.
Some Democrats worry that the Republican-led Legislature could be put in charge of the state’s electoral votes if a court intervention does not solve a deadlock. Others point out that once the results are certified, it opens a 48-hour window in which Trump can demand a recount.
On Dec. 14 the electoral college meets in the state Senate and Michigan electors formally cast their votes for president and vice president. With Biden’s win, a slate of 16 electors nominated at the Michigan Democratic Party convention in August will cast the state’s electoral votes. U.S. Congress meets on Jan. 6 to count electoral votes and declare a formal winner ahead of Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.
The state and county canvassing boards have a strong incentive to reach a consensus and resolve any legal disputes by Dec. 8. That’s the federal “safe harbor deadline,” and if the state certifies results by that day, Congress cannot contest Michigan’s electoral votes. If there are still legal battles or unresolved disputes on Dec. 8, Congress can decide which electoral votes count in Michigan. This has not happened in recent history. The Supreme Court’s ruling against a recount in the Bush v. Gore case of 2000 was so decided in part because a recount would cause Florida to miss the safe harbor deadline.