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Wayne County Board of Canvassers deadlocks, then reverses and votes to certify election

Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

Tuesday night’s Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting was a wild ride.

After initially deadlocking 2-2 along partisan lines—meaning the county’s election results would not have been certified—the Board reversed course and unanimously voted to certify the election, while also urging Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to do a “comprehensive audit” of certain precincts.

County Board of Canvassers’ certifying election results is routine, and failing to do so would have been unprecedented. It could have jeopardized the ballots cast by more than 800,000 Wayne County voters, and put the burden for completing the canvassing and certification process on the state.

But the Board’s two Republicans, Monica Palmer and William Hartmann, cited concerns over the number of “imbalanced” precincts, where the number of votes tabulated did not match the number of voters recorded in poll books.

There were a number of imbalanced precincts throughout the county, but the majority were in the city of Detroit. 33% of Election Day precincts and 70% of absentee voter precincts in the city were imbalanced, according to the post-election canvass. According to Michigan election law, such precincts could not be included in the event of a recount.

But such imbalances had not stopped the Board’s Republican members from certifying Wayne County elections in the past. In fact, the Board unanimously certified both the 2016 general election and this year’s August primary in spite of those same issues.

The initial vote drew withering scorn from the Board’s Democrats, including Vice Chair Jonathan Kinloch. He called his Republican colleagues’ actions “reckless and irresponsible,” and suggested they were using routine election administration issues as a smokescreen for partisan motives.

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

Palmer defended her initial stance. “Based on what I saw and went through in this canvass…I believe that we do not have complete and accurate information in those poll books,” she said.

However, at one point Palmer appeared to undermine her own argument when she suggested she would be open to certifying election results in Wayne County communities besides Detroit. And when asked to cite a statutory reason to deny certification, she could not do so.

The initial vote led to hours of immediate condemnation, both from public commenters attending the meeting via Zoom, and from political and legal observers nationwide on social media. Many accused the two Republican Board members of subverting the will of Wayne County voters, and of racism for their apparent willingness to disenfranchise voters in majority-Black Detroit.

Then the Board apparently proceeded to reverse itself while the Zoom meeting was muted, after landing on the audit request for the imbalanced precincts.

There was no suggestion throughout the course of the meeting that the imbalanced precinct issues were attributable to anything besides human error. However, the specter of fraud had been raised by several lawsuits brought on behalf of President Donald Trump, which have also sought to stop the certification process in Wayne County.

So far, judges have dismissed all of those fraud claims as baseless.

If Wayne County had failed to certify its results, the Michigan Secretary of State would have completed the canvass, and it would have been up to the State Board of Canvassers to certify. The state board must certify Michigan’s results by November 23. Like county boards of canvassers, that body is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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