Norm Shinkle, Republican member of Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers, questions former state Elections Director Christopher Thomas during the Board’s meeting, Nov. 23, 2020, before the Board voted for certification of the state’s election results.
At 4:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon, the four-member Board of State Canvassers certified Michigan’s election results, paving the way for the state’s electors to cast their electoral votes for President-elect Joe Biden — who won Michigan by over 150,000 votes — on Dec. 14. Michigan’s certification closes off one of President Donald Trump’s options for challenging the national election results; on Monday evening the White House informed Biden it had officially approved the transition process.
Three of the board’s four members voted to certify, which is the minimum number required. Republican Norm Shinkle abstained.
Shinkle criticized Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s handling of the election, particularly in Detroit, and proposed a motion “asking the Michigan Legislature to conduct an in-depth review of election procedures.”
“This is not the first time there has been issues with voting,” he said. His motion was unanimously supported; board member Julie Matuzak, a Democrat, said she was in favor of “fixing and modernizing” Michigan elections.
“I don’t believe there was fraud, I see no evidence of fraud,” she said. “But there’s lots of human errors.” Matuzak expressed concern about how poll challengers are trained, criticized Michigan’s recount law and said she was in favor of an audit post-certification. She also proposed a motion authorizing Michigan’s Bureau of Elections to represent the board in any recount of votes cast in the general election. It was unanimously approved.
The board consists of two Republican canvassers and two Democrats and is responsible for reviewing county results from Michigan’s 83 Boards of County Canvassers. The bipartisan makeup dates back to the 1950s and is meant to ensure a transparent and nonpartisan certification.
The board carried out its duty as expected, despite some shakeups at last week’s Wayne County Canvassers meeting, a flurry of (now dismissed or dropped) lawsuits challenging Michigan’s vote and an appeal from Republican party leaders to delay certification. A questionably-timed White House visit by several GOP state legislators on Friday raised concerns that President Trump was attempting to interfere with the certification process. Michigan Democratic Party officials called the meeting “shameful and dangerous” and Rep. Debbie Dingell said that Trump was “trying to cheat his way to victory by pressuring local officials.”
Speaking before the Board Monday, former Michigan Director of Elections Christopher Thomas emphasized the extraordinary circumstances of this year’s elections and the success of Detroit, in particular, in adapting to challenges posed by the pandemic and increased absentee voting.
Board member Aaron Van Langevelde, drawing on his own review of election law, repeatedly clarified the role of the canvassers. “Our duty is very simple, and it’s a duty,” he told speaker Charles Spies, an attorney aiding Republican Senate candidate John James in his challenge of the election results. “We have no authority to request an audit, to delay or block certification [or] to review inaccuracies that happen at a local level.”
Van Langevelde emphasized his desire for an audit of election results and his hope that any claims of election fraud are investigated, but ”we must not attempt to exercise power we simply don’t have.”
Before certifying the vote, the board heard from several state and election officials, including Thomas, Detroit Director of Elections Daniel Baxter, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey and other Michigan clerks. Wayne County canvasser Monica Palmer and representatives from Michigan’s Democratic Party and Republican Party also spoke. Michigan Republican Party chairwoman Laura Cox claimed that election workers at TCF Center, the home of Detroit’s Central Counting Board, were “inhospitable and hostile” to Republican poll challengers and that “every step of the election process has been stacked against Republicans.” Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum described a potential vote not to certify as a “slap in the face” to Michigan election officials that would “certify to the country that democracy is dying in Michigan.”
More than 30,000 people tuned in to the virtual meeting, and over 500 signed up to speak; it ran for more than eight hours. Benson, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer all commended the board for their decision and noted this year’s record voter turnout.
Certification proceeds as usual — in a very unusual year
Despite the unusual level of scrutiny surrounding Michigan elections this year, experts were confident that the board would certify the election results, saying that they were obligated to so under Michigan law. ”We do not have the luxury of inserting our opinions,” former board member Jeff Timmer reminded them during the meeting. The Board has a long history of bipartisan work and has never deadlocked over the certification of a presidential election. That’s because it was designed to do one math-based, ministerial duty: certify the results that are presented to it.
“The statute is clear: The Board of State Canvassers simply looks at the numbers and certifies the results, a process that has worked very well for Michigan,” said Steve Liedel, an election law expert who served as legal counsel to former Governor Jennifer Granholm. “This is just about the math; both parties agree that the math from every county, which have all certified the results, is valid, and the results are certified.” The current makeup of the state board is specifically designed to be bipartisan: at least one member of each party has to agree to certify the results, and the Board must have at least 3 out of 4 “yes” votes to certify.
Liedel noted that the board was created during “a pre-tech era.” In mid-century elections, “you couldn’t just go look at the results [online]. You had to tally them up.” The canvassers’ job, he said, is to “essentially just add up those races and certify those results.”
Anxiety around the certification process increased after the Wayne County Board of Canvassers’ dramatic Nov. 17 meeting, in which the board’s two Republican canvassers, Monica Palmer and William Hartmann, initially refused to certify the vote. They reversed their decision after hours of backlash from voters and activists, who were outraged by the decision. Then, both Palmer and Hartmann submitted affidavits the following day expressing a wish to rescind their “yes” votes.
It’s impossible to undo a “yes” vote after a canvassing meeting is over without calling another meeting, said Kamilia Landrum, executive director of the Detroit Branch NAACP. And since all 83 county boards in Michigan certified their results, there was no reason for the state canvassers to vote against certification. Still, Board of State Canvassers member Norm Shinkle had alluded to personal concerns similar to those raised by Palmer and Hartmann. “Transparency has been lacking,” he told the Detroit Free Press of the Nov. 3 vote last week.
And while voting “no” on a presidential race is unprecedented, the board has disagreed over ballot measures in the past. In 2004, for example, both Democratic board members refused to certify a proposal defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman. In 2001, Republicans did the same over a question concerning Michigan’s concealed weapons law.
Why the Board of State Canvassers works like it does
In the end, though, it’s not the state board’s duty to make discretionary decisions. This year’s unfounded concerns about alleged voter fraud or issues with unbalanced precincts were not for canvassers to consider, experts say. The board’s duty is routine and strictly ministerial, said John Pirich, adjunct professor at the Michigan State University College of Law. “It has nothing to do with discretion. It has nothing to do with your politics.” In 2004, for example, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered Democratic canvassers to certify the ballot measure they had initially resisted because it was their duty to do so.
Also irrelevant were the Michigan and national Republican parties’ attempts to delay this year’s certification. On Saturday Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel asked for a “full, transparent audit” before election results were certified. Shinkle told the Detroit News on Saturday that he would consider moving for an audit and asked several questions about the possibility of delaying certification during Monday’s meeting. Benson had previously clarified that an audit can only be performed after election results are certified.
What comes next in proves to finalize Michigan’s election results
The State Board of Canvassers has existed since 1850, but until the 1950s it was a partisan board that was dominated by one party or the other. After two contentious elections with partisan recounts, the state pushed for a nonpartisan certification process and procedure “in which no party can unilaterally block, obstruct or manipulate election results,” said Mark Brewer, attorney at Goodman Acker P.C. and former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. “The entire purpose of this board is to prevent partisan manipulation.”
“This process has worked very well for Michigan since the ‘50s,” said Brewer. “As a state we’re very proud of that and we have been a model for how certification should occur.”
With state certification complete, the last remaining step in finalizing Michigan’s election results is the electoral vote. Michigan’s 16 electors (chosen by the Demcoratic Party, since Biden won the state’s popular vote) will cast their votes for Biden in the electoral college on Dec. 14. This, too, is a ministerial duty. Despite rumblings surrounding Republican lawmakers’ Nov. 20 meeting with Trump, experts believe that the process will continue undisturbed.
“They have no choice but to vote for the candidate for whom they’ve been elected as an elector,” Brewer said.