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Newly appointed GOP county canvassers in Michigan say that they don’t believe the results of the 2020 presidential election are accurate and wouldn’t provide assurances they would do their duty to sign off on the results of future contests.
Their appointment raises the prospect that an unprecedented number of canvassers might refuse to attest to the county-level results in future elections, a critical step in the vote certification of statewide races.
In counties across Michigan, the GOP is filling election canvassing boards responsible for tallying the vote count with people who have embraced falsehoods and misinformation about fraud in the 2020 election.
The bipartisan boards have the routine task of double checking the vote totals submitted by municipalities and signing off on the county-level results before turning them over to the state board to certify statewide contests, as well as those that cross county lines.
But the appointment of several GOP canvassers who still question Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in 2020 raises the risk that these boards could become a partisan bottleneck in the effort to certify the results of future elections.
In Wayne County, home to the largest number of Michigan voters, the GOP nominated Robert Boyd to the canvassing board. Boyd has called the results of the 2020 presidential election "inaccurate" and has said he would not have approved the county results.
In Antrim County, the site of a brief tallying error on election night that fed fanciful conspiracy theories about vote manipulation, Marvin Rubingh is now on the board as GOP canvasser. Rubingh has called former President Donald Trump’s false and widely debunked claims that the election was stolen "a credible accusation."
In Kalamazoo County, new Republican canvasser Tony Lorentz said he couldn’t say whether Biden won Michigan — which he did. Asked whether he would sign off on future elections, Lorentz said it "depends how they look."
The appointments have voting rights advocates and election officials worried that the once routine process of double-checking and certifying vote tallies could get embroiled in partisan fights or vague suspicions of fraud. They worry canvassing boards could deadlock along party lines on the results.
"I'm deeply concerned about it. I'm very, very concerned about it," said Aghogho Edevbie, the Michigan director for the voting rights organization All Voting is Local. "Even a little bit of opposition if you had a deadlock in one county would be tremendously destabilizing."
The canvassing board appointments in Michigan fit a larger nationwide pattern. Republicans across the country have replaced local and state election officials with Trump allies who have embraced false claims of election fraud and other election misinformation.
Some GOP-led states have also changed their election laws to give partisan actors a greater role in administering elections, including after the ballots are cast. A new "takeover" provision in Georgia, for instance, would allow the state’s GOP-led election board to replace Fulton County’s bipartisan board with an new appointee who would have final authority to certify election results.
Lawyers have expressed confidence that Michigan has the safeguards in place to prevent any effort to overturn a legitimate election result. They pointed to the courts as a backstop.
"Barring a breakdown in the rule of law… I don’t think there’s a realistic scenario where these folks have any ability to do anything to impact the results of the election," said attorney Steve Liedel who served as legal counsel to former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "People can talk a big game and puff their chests, but at the end of the day the system is set up for people to do their job."
Local political parties put forward three nominees to fill the canvassing boards, which are made up of two Democratic and two Republican political appointees. The board members are then selected from among those nominees by county commissioners or, in some instances, the county clerk.
Of the 11 counties Biden won in 2020, six appointed new GOP canvassers in the last year. Wayne County has two new Republican canvassers — Boyd and Katherine Riley, who declined a request for an interview. This year’s races for top statewide offices, Congress and state legislative races will be their first chance to review the results of a statewide election.
The process typically passes with little controversy. After Michigan voters cast their ballots, hundreds of local canvassers spend days poring over election records. They review ballot containers, tabulator tapes and poll books before creating a statement of the votes cast. Lorentz said that the canvass entails "a lot of boring work" but that it’s "extremely important," because canvassers can catch and correct clerical errors it finds in the vote tallies.
But 2020 offered a glimpse of the types of disruptions that could come in future elections if canvassers hold up certification for other reasons.
The last election saw a relentless disinformation campaign spearheaded by Trump and his allies aimed at overturning the results of the election, including pressure on state and county canvassers to withhold their votes on certification based on false claims.
Republican canvassers in Wayne County, a Democratic stronghold that includes Detroit, shocked election officials when they initially refused to sign off on the county’s election results, creating a deadlock on the board and throwing the certification of more than 850,000 votes into disarray. They reversed course, but then sought to undo their votes. They were ultimately unsuccessful.
The dramatic county canvass prompted concerns that the state elections panel might fail to perform its duty to certify the statewide results. One of the Republican canvassers abstained, citing unresolved questions about election integrity. That left the outcome riding on the vote of the other GOP member, Aaron Van Langevelde. Van Langevelde joined both Democrats on the Board of State Canvassers to certify the results.
After the vote, the Michigan GOP chose not to nominate Van Langevelde for another term. Among the nominees put forward by the Republicans, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer chose GOP operative Tony Daunt, a vocal critic of Trump’s election lies.
Courts across the state and country rejected lawsuits that leveled allegations of widespread fraud, ruling in many cases that the challenges were based on conspiracy and conjecture. Hundreds of post-election audits in Michigan affirmed the results, and a comprehensive investigation by the GOP-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee debunked numerous falsehoods about the integrity of the election. A recent investigation by the Associated Press identified 56 potential instances of voter fraud, nowhere near enough to have tipped the outcome of the election, which Biden won in Michigan by more than 154,000 votes.
In casting his 2020 vote, Van Langevelde cited the limits of his authority as a canvasser to challenge the official results. Indeed, the role is often described as ministerial: Canvassers add up the vote totals and make sure that the numbers check out.
So what they think or suspect about the fairness of an election isn’t supposed to matter.
"Canvassers do not have an independent right to decide on their own whether through their own wisdom, there was a fair election," said Edevbie.
"They’re not charged with investigating fraud," said Liedel. "Their job is to do the math." If canvassers believe that there was any fraud in the election, they should inform law enforcement, Liedel said.
Bill Azelton, a new member of the Saginaw County Board of Canvassers, was the only newly appointed GOP canvasser who spoke with PolitiFact Michigan who said that Joe Biden legitimately won the state.
"As disappointed as that makes me," said the 23 year-old from Birch Run who works for state Rep. Greg Markkanen, R-Hancock. "I know that’s very controversial."
Azleton acknowledged what the lawyers said about the role of canvassers.
"It would seem to me… that county canvassing boards are not responsible for investigating claims of fraud or impropriety in elections," Azelton said. "As to whether they could refuse to certify, it doesn't look to me like they could refuse. It's my understanding that challenges to elections are to be handled in the courts."
And yet, the brief 2020 deadlock in Wayne County — and comments by the new GOP county canvassers — raise the specter that another one could occur.
If a county board deadlocks along party lines, the state canvassers become responsible for completing the county canvass, and the county’s taxpayers would bear the costs. The Board of State Canvassers has a clear obligation to certify the statewide results.
Canvassers who fail to sign off the election results could face criminal charges such as willful neglect of duty or neglect of election law duties, said Liedel.
Tracy Wimmer, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, said: "Canvass members must do their duty and certify election results, and if they do not there will be legal repercussions."
And they would expose themselves to lawsuits asking a court to order the board to certify.
Courts would likely act on any lawsuits quickly to resolve disputes before certification deadlines, said John Pirich, an election law attorney who teaches at the Michigan State University College of Law.
Pirich said he has confidence that the judicial system will prevail, ordering canvassers who dispute the count based on unfounded allegations of election misconduct or fraud to approve the results. "I think the courts will see through those kinds of shenanigans without much difficulty."
Given that, the newly appointed county canvassers entertaining the possibility of refusing to sign off on an election may not have much reason to follow through on that threat.
"People can bloviate ahead of time," said Pirich, "but the reality is when you face the risk of contempt citations from a court for not doing your ministerial duty, it becomes a different game."
Michigan Secretary of State’s Office, Manual for Boards of County Canvassers, October 2020
Michigan Election Law, Act 116 of 1954 Chapter XXX "The County Canvass", accessed 1/21/22
Michigan Secretary of State’s Office, Michigan Voter Registration Count by County, accessed 1/21/22
Detroit Free Press, Next GOP Wayne County canvasser says he would not have certified results of 2020 election, 10/18/21
Robert Boyd, GOP member Wayne County Board of Canvassers, phone interview, 10/18/21
Marvin Rubingh, GOP member Antrim County Board of Canvassers, phone interview, 1/11/22
Tony Lorentz, GOP member Kalamazoo County Board of Canvassers, phone interview, 1/10/22
Michigan Election Law, MCL 168.24c, accessed 1/21/22
Michigan Election Law, MCL 168.24d, accessed 1/21/22
The Washington Post, Trump allies work to place supporters in key election posts across the country, spurring fears about future vote challenges, 11/29/21
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Prospect of Georgia election takeover fuels concerns about vote integrity, 12/23/21
Aghogho Edevbie, Michigan State Director for All Voting is Local, phone interview, 1/14/22 and 10/21/21
Steve Liedel, Dykema attorney, phone interview, 1/20/22
POLITICO, Joe Biden won in Michigan, flipping a state Donald Trump won in 2016., accessed 1/21/22
Detroit Free Press, GOP members reverse course, vote to certify Wayne County election results, 11/17/20
The Detroit Free Press, GOP members of Wayne County Board of Canvassers say they want to rescind votes to certify, 11/19/20
Wayne County, Election Summary Report, November 2020
Detroit Free Press, Michigan board votes to certify election results despite GOP calls to delay, 11/23/20
Detroit Free Press, Republican Party moves to replace GOP board member who voted to certify Michigan election, 1/18/21
Associated Press, Far too little vote fraud to tip election to Trump, AP finds, 12/14/21
Detroit Free Press, Michigan Republican-led investigation rejects Trump's claim that Nov. 3 election was stolen, 6/23/21
Detroit Free Press, Michigan completes most comprehensive post-election audit in state history: What it showed, 3/2/21
Detroit Free Press, What is the Board of State Canvassers? What does it do? Why does it exist?, 11/22/20
John Pirich, Michigan State University College of Law professor, phone interview, 1/20/22