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Absentee ballots are processed at the central counting board, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Detroit. (AP) Absentee ballots are processed at the central counting board, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Detroit. (AP)

Absentee ballots are processed at the central counting board, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Detroit. (AP)

Clara Hendrickson
By Clara Hendrickson November 11, 2020

No 'planned theft of the election' in Detroit

If Your Time is short

  • The video takes audio recordings of election worker trainings out of context.

  • In fact, the audio recordings show instructions that conform to state voting rules.

A viral video shared by Big League Politics, an online news outlet that describes itself as a source for "hard-hitting investigative political journalism," falsely claims that Detroit election workers were instructed to meddle in the election.

For weeks, the website, which has promoted conspiracy theories before, published audio recordings it says are from Detroit election worker trainings as part of its #DetroitLeaks series. The video — which has been removed from YouTube but was preserved by Big League Politics on a video hosting site known for sharing conspiratorial content — stitches the audio together to claim that "multiple Detroit pollworker trainings were audio-recorded, which reveal the mechanisms of the planned theft of the election." Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office confirmed that it sent a cease and desist letter to Big League Politics.

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

In an article that has since been removed from the Big League Politics website, reporter Shane Trejo wrote that the video detailed "explosive evidence of election trainers in the city of Detroit telling poll workers how to lie to voters, destroy ballots, and disenfranchise poll challengers on election day." But the audio recordings — the latest in a string of misinformation related to the election in Michigan — do not point to anything nefarious, despite the video’s ominous-sounding music.

President Donald Trump received nearly 5,000 more votes from Detroit this most recent election compared to his 2016 performance, according to the city’s unofficial results. Meanwhile, president-elect Joe Biden underperformed in Detroit compared to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton who won nearly 1,000 more votes than Biden based on Detroit’s unofficial results.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said the snippets in the video were misused. "What was recorded and shared was taken out of context. All laws were followed in training of election workers, in full compliance," she said.

Text appearing in the video describes what it alleges Detroit election workers were told to do followed by audio and transcripts of election worker trainings to support each claim. We looked at the supposed instructions one by one and found that taken together, they do not support the claim that Detroit election workers were trained to help steal the election:

"Step 1: Kick out the poll challengers."

This is not the advice that the trainer imparted. In the audio, the trainer is heard telling poll workers that all challengers have to wear masks and practice social distancing. At one point the trainer joked that unless challengers have really good vision or brought binoculars, they would not be able to see what election workers are doing. However, even with social distancing, hundreds of challengers were able to monitor Detroit’s absentee ballot count and challenge voters’ eligibility to cast a ballot.

In the video, an election worker is heard asking what steps should be taken if election challengers cause a scene. The trainer says to call the police. Challengers have to abide by conduct standards, the trainer explains. On the day before the election when Detroit election workers began processing absentee ballots, two election challengers were escorted out of the counting room by the police. One challenger was wearing a horror movie mask and caused a disruption while a Republican challenger refused to properly wear her face mask. Wednesday afternoon, police had to push back an angry crowd of Republican poll challengers who had been prohibited from entering the counting room after the number of Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan challengers reached the limit allowed under state law. Over 100 Republican challengers remained in the room to monitor the count. 

"Step 2: Process challenged ballots as regular ballots to be counted."

In text that scrolls over the screen, the video claims that election workers were instructed to "process challenged ballots as regular ballots to be counted." That’s a mischaracterization. In an audio recording, a trainer is heard saying that in order to record a ballot as challenged, election workers should place the ballot in a secrecy sleeve and cover the ballot number with a Post-It. The trainer goes on to say that after election workers have taken these steps, a voter can go vote as normal.

Voters whose eligibility is challenged on the basis of age, residency or citizenship can, in fact, receive a ballot and vote as normal after showing proof of eligibility or swearing under oath that they meet the requirements. Even after a challenged voter’s eligibility has been established, their ballot is specially marked — in ink below the barcode and covered with tape — and labeled in the electronic poll book.  

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"Step 3: Allow anyone with an easily-forged piece of paper to vote."

That’s not the instruction. In the recording, the trainer lays out the process for handling a newly registered voter who is not listed in the electronic poll book used by inspectors to check registrations. Michigan allows registration right up to 8 p.m. on Election Day.

The trainer explains that since the voter records are downloaded to the electronic poll book the Saturday before Election Day, newly registered voters would not yet be listed. Those voters are given a receipt to present to poll workers on Election Day as evidence that they registered. The receipt indicates whether the voter needs to present any additional ID to confirm their eligibility. Poll workers can then add the voter manually to the rolls.

The video claims, "Anyone with the know-how could generate thousands of fake late registration receipts." Voters have to present ID when they vote or sign an affidavit affirming they are eligible. Falsifying a voter registration receipt is a crime. Meanwhile, voters manually added to the rolls are recorded separately in the poll book so they can be rechecked against records later.

"Step 4: Staff polling stations with children."

By law, 16- and 17-year-olds can work as election inspectors, but not as the precinct chairperson. In the audio recording, the trainer says that young people who can’t stay out late for the final duties on Election Day — returning the sealed ballot containers and other records and equipment to the local receiving board — should tell the chairperson, so another adult can help with that. The video seems to imply that this opens the door for someone to tamper with election materials.

Election materials are safeguarded by election workers, and state rules require ballots and other election materials to be delivered — in sealed containers and envelopes — to the receiving board by one precinct inspector affiliated with the Democratic Party and another affiliated with the Republican Party.

"Step 5: Nobody available to call for help."

That’s wrong; troubleshooters are available. In the recording, a trainer explains that on Election Day, election workers will be able to call designated troubleshooters should any issues arise. The trainer says, "Honestly speaking, it’s going to be hard to get ahold of someone, because there’s going to be ten people calling us at the same time."

This is typical since Election Day is a busy time for election officials who are often running around the city to make sure the voting process is running smoothly. It may be difficult to immediately get in touch with officials, but that does not mean that election workers did not or could not get help on Election Day.

"Step 6: Count challenged ballots, DESTROY provisional ballots"

This is misleading. The trainer in the video is heard discussing what election workers should do if a voter shows up to vote in person on Election Day if the clerk has already received the voter’s absentee ballot. The trainer tells election workers, "do not issue him a ballot." The trainer explains that voters are only allowed to vote once and that if a voter already cast an absentee ballot, they cannot vote again in person on Election Day.

If the voter insists that they did not already vote, the trainer explains that the chairperson can issue the voter a provisional ballot that will not go through the tabulator to be counted and will be destroyed if the voter already voted absentee.

This is common practice for provisional ballots, which are kept out of the count pending confirmation that they were legally cast.

Challenged voters, by contrast, receive ballots only after poll workers receive proof or sworn affirmation that the voter is eligible and registered. Their ballots are specially marked and recorded in the electronic poll book, then tabulated normally.

Our ruling

A viral video claims that Detroit election worker trainings "reveal the mechanisms of the planned theft of the election." The trainings do not indicate any coordinated effort to meddle in the election. Rather they describe customary practices for handling voters and ballots in accordance with the state’s election rules.

We rate the video’s claim False.

Our Sources

Big League Politics, Facebook About, accessed Nov. 9, 2020

Big League Politics, Shane Trejo, "BANNED BY GOOGLE: #DetroitLeaks Video Showing Evidence of Electoral Fraud is Removed From Youtube," Oct. 30, 2020

Bit Chute, "#DETROITLEAKS: State Employees Train Poll Workers to Lie to Voters, Destroy Ballots, Stop Challenger," Oct. 30, 2020

The Detroit Free Press, Tresa Baldas, Kristen Jordan Shamus, Niraj Warikoo, M.L. Elrick, Joe Guillen and Evan Petzold, "'Get to TCF': What really happened inside Detroit's ballot counting center," Nov. 6, 2020 

The Detroit Free Press, Niraj Warikoo, "Ballot processing begins in Detroit; 2 poll challengers removed," Nov. 2, 2020

Election Officials’ Manual, Michigan Bureau of Elections, Chapter 6 Michigan's Absentee Voting Process, Oct. 2020

Election Officials’ Manual, Michigan Bureau of Elections, Chapter 11 Election Day Issues, Oct. 2020

Detroit Department of Elections, Become An Election Day Pollworker, accessed Nov. 9, 2020

Michigan Department of State, Bureau of Elections, Managing Your Precinct on Election Day, Jan. 2020 

Detroit Department of Elections, Unofficial Results, lasted updated Nov. 5, 2020 at 12:18 p.m. EST

Detroit Department of Elections, Official Results Nov. 8, 2016 General Election

Matt Friedman, spokesperson for Detroit Votes 2020, email, Nov. 9, 2020

The Detroit Free Press, Clara Hendrickson, "More than 100 Republican challengers monitored absentee ballot count in Detroit," Nov. 6, 2020

The Detroit Free Press, Dave Boucher, Clara Hendrickson and Tresa Baldas, "Trump lies repeatedly about election efforts in Michigan, Detroit during national speech," Nov. 9, 2020

NBC News, Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, "Secret message board drives 'pizzagate'-style harassment campaign of small businesses," Aug. 27, 2020 

Anti-Defamation League, "BitChute: A Hotbed of Hate," Aug. 31, 2020

The Detroit Free Press, Clara Hendrickson, Lou Jacobson, Bill McCarthy, Ciara O'Rourke, Ashley Nerbovig and Amy Sherman, "Michigan was a hotbed for election-related misinformation: Here are 17 key fact checks," Nov. 9, 2020 

The Detroit Free Press, Ashley Nerbovig, "Michigan AG to right-wing website: Take down misleading videos," Nov. 10, 2020

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No 'planned theft of the election' in Detroit

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