Max Nesterak | States Newsroom
Michigan’s Aug. 2 primary results were certified earlier this month with little to no fanfare in contrast to the tumultuous aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. So is this a sign of normalcy returning to the process or the calm before the storm coming with the Nov. 8 general election?
“Michigan’s canvassing boards fulfilled their lawful duty to review and certify the election results for the August primary,” said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in an Aug. 19 statement. “Congratulations to the more than 1,600 township, city, and county clerks who once again administered a secure, high turnout election with professionalism that reflects their sincere commitment to ensuring every valid vote is counted and every voice is heard.”
Following the statewide primary, all 83 Michigan counties had to certify their election results, which they did. Then on Aug. 19, the Board of State Canvassers voted 3-0 to finalize the results. The board is split 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans, but Republican Tony Daunt was absent due to a family issue.
However, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that a unanimous, bipartisan agreement would be achieved following the first major election after the 2020 general election in which former President Donald Trump, as well as Michigan GOP officials and the Republican Party, pushed forward disproven conspiracy theories of massive fraud and a “stolen” election.
Trump lost the election to President Joe Biden by more than 154,000 votes. But in one of Biden’s strongholds, Wayne County, Republicans on the county Board of Canvassers initially refused to certify the results even though Biden won there 68% to 31%. The board reversed course after a long meeting. The state’s largest county is home to Detroit and was the subject of many conspiracy theories from Trump and his supporters, with the former president even reaching out to the GOP canvassers.
Several days later, the Board of State Canvassers OK’d the state’s election results after a lengthy meeting that was closely watched for its national implications. The vote was 3-0, with then-GOP member Norm Shinkle abstaining.
Since 2020, there’s been a coordinated effort of Trump supporters to place GOP election deniers in key election positions, including Macomb and Antrim counties. Elections experts are concerned that what had once been a relatively mundane process, namely certifying election results, would instead become another extreme partisan battleground.
The Nov. 8 general election presents another test.
Mark Brewer, an elections lawyer and former Michigan Democratic Party chair, tells Michigan Advance that while the Aug. 2 primary certification’s lack of rancor is a good sign, it by no means shows threats to the process are in the rearview mirror.
“I think it was encouraging what happened in terms of certification, but primaries are very different from the general election,” said Brewer. “I mean, if you refuse to certify you’re affecting your own party’s ability to nominate somebody, right? So it’s a very different scenario and we’re not going to take anything for granted in the fall because obviously the stakes are very, very different in the fall.”
With that in mind, Brewer says there are several organizations, like the League of Women Voters, focused on maintaining unbiased election certification by recruiting volunteers to watch over that process all the way down to the local level.
“And if there were problems, there’s various mechanisms to deal with it,” he said. “In the first instance, if a board refuses to certify, it falls to the state board of canvassers to take over and finish the process. But there’s also a remedy of a lawsuit to force certification. If it comes to them, the law is crystal clear after almost two centuries of elections in this state, that these boards must certify the elections. So we’ll put all that in place again in the fall to keep an eye on all these boards.”
Another issue that remains a potential flashpoint for partisan conflict over elections is the expectation the public has about how soon they should know the results of the election.
Michael Traugott is a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies. He told the Advance that one reason we may not have seen disputes over certifying primary results is that there were far fewer overall votes to count in a primary than in a general election.
“It’s important to make a distinction between accuracy and what some people would consider timeliness,” said Traugott. “I think that elections in Michigan generally are very well-run and very well-administered and there are procedures in place to assure the accuracy of the count. But one big thing in Michigan is that the law prohibits the counting of absentee ballots until the polls open on Election Day.”
Traugott says several states allow for the advanced counting of absentee ballots, so that by the end of Election Day, it’s much easier to produce a preliminary total. However, Michigan law prevents that, and the GOP-led Legislature has not taken up legislation backed by Benson to give election workers more time to process ballots.
That structural issue, combined with the increase in absentee voting since the success of the 2018 constitutional amendment allowing for no-reason absentee voting, a scenario is in place that helps boost skepticism about elections.
“Wayne County is the biggest county in the state,” said Traugott “It has the most absentee ballots therefore, and that counting process can be more time-consuming there than in other places.”
Complaints about the timeliness of Wayne County’s preliminary election results were a key feature of Republican attacks on the 2020 process, and were at the center of conspiracy theories used by Trump and his allies to try and discredit the results.
I think it was encouraging what happened in terms of certification, but primaries are very different from the general election. I mean, if you refuse to certify you're affecting your own party's ability to nominate somebody, right? So it's a very different scenario and we're not going to take anything for granted in the fall because obviously the stakes are very, very different in the fall.
– Attorney Mark Brewer
Another issue to be aware of, according to Traugott, is that in furtherance of election security following the travails of 2020, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission suggested that vote totals not be transmitted over the internet.
Traugott says that because most of the counties in Michigan have taken that advice to heart, vote totals are being delivered in person to central locations where there’s a secure FTP line, which can then be used to transmit totals to the state.
“So if an assessment of functionality or the quality of election administration is speed, it’s important to be prepared for the fact that things are going to be relatively slow,” he says. “So I would say that those two things, the counting of the absentee ballots and the personal delivery of totals, will slow things down, but that doesn’t relate in any way to accuracy and administrative control of the process.”
Traugott adds that another factor in the setting of election night expectations is the media.
“It’s important to remember that the count of the votes on Election Day is only preliminary,” said Traugott. “There’s an audit that follows, and then the certification by state officials comes up a few weeks afterwards. So the official count, which corroborates the early counts, doesn’t become official for a couple of weeks. But of course, everybody now is used to television coverage in particular, and getting a projection of the winner on election night, within a couple of hours, after the polls close.”
Traugott says it is probably too much to expect that the public will understand the intricacies of the process and factors that might delay results in pursuit of accuracy.
“In terms of the civics lesson of understanding the process, it’s more about the Secretary of State and the Bureau of Elections describing the process and the media reporting that this has been the normal course of action and the regular calendar for determining the winners of elections,” he said.
However, Traugott believes the most significant race on the ballot this November will be that for secretary of state, as that person will be in charge of elections in Michigan for the 2024 presidential race.
In that regard, he said Benson, a Democrat, has a record of successful, accurate election administration while her GOP challenger, Kristina Karamo, is a prominent denier of the 2020 election results.
“If you were concerned about the integrity of our election administration, then of course the secretary of state is the most important, perhaps followed by the attorney general, who can make decisions about whether or not to proceed with court cases.”
But for now, Brewer says the rhetoric surrounding election certification is not the same as actually following through on actions that would essentially spell an end to free and fair elections.
“They certainly put in a number of election deniers in place in Macomb and Kalamazoo and a number of other counties, but so far they haven’t acted on those beliefs,” said Brewer. “They all voted to certify the election results. So words are worrisome, but actions are much worse. And so that’s what we’re watching for. Will they act on those beliefs and refuse to certify?”
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