Wayne County Republicans urged primary poll workers, watchers to break Michigan election rules
On the night before Michigan's primary election in August, Wayne County Republican Party leaders held a virtual training session for poll workers and partisan poll observers. During that video call, the party leaders encouraged people to break election rules.
A recording of that training includes this exchange between Wayne County Republican Party Chairwoman Cheryl Costantino and one of the attendees.
Costantino: "And maybe hide a small pad and a small pen. You need to take accurate notes."
Trainee: "If we are observed with a pen and a piece of paper writing on anything, they just said they would ... remove us."
Costantino: "That's why you've got to do it secretly."
That moment is featured in a new report from CNN Investigates. It reveals how 2020 election deniers and supporters of former President Donald Trump are trying to undermine election procedures in Michigan and beyond.
CNN producer Audrey Ash is part of the team that worked on story. She spoke with Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou.
Advice from an election denier
One person guiding the training call was former Michigan state Senator Patrick Colbeck. Colbeck is now a vocal election denier and a conspiracy theorist. Since the 2020 election, Ash says Colbeck has become one of a number of people who make the rounds doing presentations and speeches about the 2020 election.
"He's written a book called The 2020 Coup that he sells on Amazon," Ash says. "He has a blog that pushes baseless conspiracy theories that have to do with whether or not election machines are connected to the internet, whether or not [election workers] are reporting the results the way that they're supposed to."
Colbeck has also started training poll workers and poll watchers in Michigan. Ash says he was on the August video call as a featured guest speaker and repeatedly gave advice that was either inaccurate or would lead the trainees to violate election rules.
Michigan voting machines are not connected to the internet during the tabulating process, but Colbeck has frequently claimed they are. Ash says he advised the trainees on the August call on how to check if a machine was online. The advice didn't stop there.
"'Make sure that you get the tapes from the tabulator at the end of the night. There's no reason they shouldn't give them to you. You should be able to question the whole process,'" Ash says.
"Then he gave a very specific Michigan statute ... to tell people if they got kicked out or if they were told, 'You can't do that.' He was like, 'You're allowed to do all of these things, even if they tell you it's not true.'"
"They're directly telling these people, 'These rules are unfair, and if you have to break them to prevent this stolen election, then you have to break them.'"CNN Investigates producer Audrey Ash
Workers vs. watchers
Poll watchers or challengers are partisan observers who attend polling sites to look for election rules violations. But poll workers are employed by municipalities to run operations at polling sites — checking people in, checking IDs, counting ballots, and other tasks that are supposed to be treated as nonpartisan. Workers are officially trained by township clerks or county clerks using information provided by the Michigan secretary of state, who helps design the programs.
The call led by Costantino and Colbeck was not an official training.
"We actually even contacted the Michigan Democrats and they don't do any sort of secondary training. It seems to be something that's largely happening on the Republican side," Ash says.
"They're directly telling these people, 'These rules are unfair. And if you have to break them to prevent this stolen election, then you have to break them.'"
"Act like spies"
In CNN's report, correspondent Drew Griffin asked Costantino why she told participants to "act like spies."
"[T]o kind of reframe it and make it more fun and interesting," Costantino told him. "I said just, you know, instead of causing a bunch of scenes and things like that, just write it down. Just kind of be like spies and let me, you know, let me know what's going on."
Writing anything down and taking notes would be a violation of election rules.
But Costantino is not alone. Ash says that CNN has found that Constantino's approach is typical of a strategy being used by Trump supporters in Michigan and beyond.
"We've taken a look at what a lot of people are referring to as the 'precinct strategy,' where they're making sure that the MAGA crowd, the ultra MAGA crowd, Trump supporters are in the room and the one making the decisions," Ash says. "They are telling people, 'You should sign up to be a precinct delegate.'"
In Michigan, the nominees for secretary of state and state attorney general do not run in a general primary. They are chosen by political parties during their conventions, as voted by delegates. Both offices play key roles in enforcing election integrity.
"So the strategy is really what they're calling like 'flooding the precinct delegate position' with MAGA people or the ultra MAGA. It is a broader effort across the U.S. to make sure that not only are Republicans winning, but that any sort of Republican in those positions are the ultra MAGA and are Donald Trump supporters and 2020 conspiracy theorists."
Changing the minds of skeptics
A number of county clerks told CNN that poll watchers often have a very different view of things by the end of election night, and even end up becoming poll workers.
"They're skeptical of the process. And so they want to get involved to make sure that no fraud happens. But by doing so ... they can tell and see that there actually is no fraud," Ash says.
"Then they become some of the strongest supporters of the process and of the structures that exist, which I thought was really great to hear."
Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.