‘It’s just a full-throttle attack on elections and on democracy in Michigan’

Report details ‘intertwined’ and ‘coordinated’ threats to democracy in the key state

By: - October 12, 2022 9:33 am

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Election deniers, the legislation they are proposing and their efforts to dismantle Michigan’s voting systems ahead of the midterm elections, are being highlighted as the top threats to democracy in Michigan.

That’s from an analysis by the Washington, D.C.-based Defend Democracy Project, which surveyed grassroots organizers, legal analysts and academic experts to identify what they assess to be the key risks.

The report, “The Three Greatest Threats to Democracy in Michigan,” describes the primary threats as being intertwined. 

Yet Rebecca Parks, the research director for the Defend Democracy Project, says there is also coordination among these various efforts.

“We see the same people pop up again and again and again and some of the same groups,” said Parks. “For instance, the sort of floods of public records requests that have just been really inundating county officials asking for sort of nonsensical records or just thousands and thousands and thousands of records from the 2020 elections that we’re seeing all across the country.” 

The threats are broadly described as:

  • Election deniers working at every level to disrupt the electoral process, starting with training rogue poll workers and encouraging former President Donald Trump supporters to threaten state and local election officials with harassment.
  • Advancing legislation, lawsuits, and other initiatives based on fraudulent election conspiracy theories, with the goal of restricting voting access.
  • An extensive effort on the part of Trump supporters to dismantle Michigan’s voting systems ahead of the midterm elections.

“These threats are designed to overturn the will of American voters, and take away our most basic right to choose our own leaders,” states the report. “Trump and MAGA Republicans in Michigan are actively working to derail election administration, obstruct ballot access, and dismantle the voting system in order to consolidate power over elections for decades to come.”

On the first threat of derailing Michigan’s election administration, the report notes a new survey in which almost half of Michigan local officials report harassment and abuse, nearly triple the national average of 17%, while nearly four out of five election workers say threats have increased in recent years. 

The threats detailed include election officials being shouted down at public meetings, harassed online, and receiving violent threats that mostly go unprosecuted. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has called it “a nationally coordinated effort,” that is not only threatening election officials, but also local elected officials.

Another tactic in pursuit of disrupting the electoral process has involved pro-Trump operatives inundating local election offices with hundreds of public records requests seeking personal information about election workers, including their phone numbers and home addresses.  

Further attempts at subverting the election process, according to the report, involve GOP officials encouraging  poll workers and partisan observers to ignore election rules including those that ban cell phones and pens from inside polling places and vote-tabulation centers.

Among those conducting the trainings is the Election Integrity Force, a Michigan GOP group that has made numerous false claims about the 2020 election.

Like democracy, election workers are under assault with many fearing for the future

“Though local clerks have been made aware of the group and are working with Secretary Benson and the Brennan Center for Justice to counteract their efforts, these election deniers pose a serious insider threat to Michigan elections this fall,” states the report.

Another strategy for election chaos included in the report is using “MAGA canvassers” to withhold certifying election results, especially in Michigan’s four most populous counties: Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Kent counties. 

“The integrity of Michigan’s electoral system is dependent on swiftly delivering election results that have already been counted in an efficient, timely, means-tested manner,” according to the report. “This sort of scenario is exactly what MAGA insiders are aiming for; spreading distrust and holding election results could lead to widespread misinformation and give rise to fringe conspiracy theories about the democratic process.”

The authors point to so-called “constitutional sheriffs” like Barry County’s Dar Leaf as among those who could take advantage of certification delays and insert themselves into the process by falsely claiming voter fraud. 

Leaf is already under investigation for suspected tabulator tampering in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, with concerns that he will again try to use his office in November to disrupt the election process with unfounded allegations. That probe includes eight others, with GOP Attorney General nominee Matthew DePerno and state Rep. Daire Rendon (R-Lake City) among them.

The second tier of election threat outlined by the Defend Democracy Project is legislation targeting ballot access.

In Michigan, that effort is best represented by the “Secure MI Vote” petition, which received $150,000 from Donald Trump’s Save America PAC and is backed by the Michigan GOP.

While it missed the deadline to get on the 2022 ballot, it could still be approved by the Legislature, which is currently GOP-controlled,  leaving Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who opposes the initiative — powerless to veto it.

The measure would impose restrictive voter ID regulations for in-person voting while prohibiting qualified caretakers from return absentee ballots, which advocates say would discriminate against disabled voters.

Opposition groups have since escalated their campaign, sending out mass text messages misinforming voters that the proposition would allow incarcerated felons to vote — a blatant lie, given that Prop 2 makes no mention of felony status.

– A new report from the Defend Democracy Project

However, a separate effort to expand voting access, Promote the Vote or Proposal 3 of 2020, gained a place on the November 8 ballot after collecting nearly 670,000 signatures, almost 250,000 more signatures than needed.

If approved, Promote the Vote would, among other things, mandate nine days of early in-person voting; allow for military or overseas ballots to be tallied if they are postmarked the day of the election; enable voters to verify their identity using a photo identification or signed statement; and require canvassing boards to certify election results based solely on official records of votes cast.

As a constitutional amendment, it would supersede the Secure MI Vote initiative and other GOP legislation restricting voting rights.

After the bipartisan Michigan State Board of Canvassers deadlocked on approving the measure along party lines, the state Supreme Court intervened and ordered it to appear on the ballot.

“Opposition groups have since escalated their campaign,” notes the report, “sending out mass text messages misinforming voters that the proposition would allow incarcerated felons to vote — a blatant lie, given that Prop 2 makes no mention of felony status.”

Meanwhile, former GOP gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley, who faces federal charges related to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, is leading a committee opposing both Promote the Vote and Proposal 2 supporting abortion rights, prompting the report’s authors to conclude that, “election deniers are all-but-certain to continue their assault on the voting rights amendment as Election Day approaches.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley attends a Republican gubernatorial in Howell on May 13, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

The report’s final leg in the triad of threats to democracy comes from within, namely MAGA-supporting election officials working to compromise the state’s voting system.

At the top of that category are efforts to fight a criminal investigation into voting systems breaches after the 2020 election involving DePerno.

DePerno, in turn, has threatened to “lock up” his opponent, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, both before and after she recused herself and had her office file a petition for a special prosecutor.

In that petition, DePerno, Leaf, Rendon and others, are accused of orchestrating “a coordinated plan to gain access to voting tabulators” used in Roscommon, Barry and Missaukee counties. 

Authorities are also investigating how a voting machine from northern Michigan’s Wexford County ended up listed on eBay for $1,200. 

“Punctuated by the recent indictment of a Michigan poll worker who allegedly breached an election computer during the August primary election, these security lapses have raised concerns from election security experts about the very real possibility of insider cybersecurity threats during the midterm election,” states the report.

Other inside threats laid out in the report include the continued targeting of Antrim County with “record requests, hostile communications, and ongoing litigation by election deniers,” and Sharon Olson, a clerk in Barry County’s Irving Township, joining in on a lawsuit seeking to decertify the 2020 election results in Michigan, citing unproven and debunked claims of ‘election fraud’.

Looking to the future, the report closes with several legal theories at play that could place Michigan elections at risk.

Chief among these is the Moore v. Harper case set to be heard this fall by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case centers on newly drawn maps for North Carolina’s 14 congressional seats. The North Carolina Supreme Court found the maps were gerrymandered, thus violating the state’s constitution.

Republicans in the state appealed that decision, arguing that state legislatures have the sole authority to define congressional districts.

That argument is based on a previously obscure legal theory known as the Independent State Legislature Doctrine (ISL), which reinterprets the Elections Clause in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution and the Presidential Electors Clause in Article 2 to mean that legis­latures are the sole state entity that can regu­late federal elec­tions, and as such can overrule state courts, and even state consti­tu­tions, on such matters.

“As a gerrymandering case, Moore v. Harper could set a nasty precedent by “potentially nullifying state constitutional provisions regarding federal elections,” undermining independent redistricting commissions across the country,” notes the report. “ISL doctrine would supersede the Michigan state constitutions, allowing the legislature to set election rules, electors, and congressional maps without any oversight from governors, state courts, and ballot initiatives.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel (left) and GOP AG nominee Matt DePerno (right) | Ken Coleman and Allison R. Donahue photos

If the doctrine were to become precedent, the state legislature could bypass the voter-approved Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and unilaterally adopt new redistricting maps while simultaneously giving the legislature the power to nullify the popular vote in a presidential election.

That’s a scenario the report says already has a precedent.

“In 2020, Trump campaign officials oversaw efforts to put forward a slate of sixteen illegitimate Trump electors from Michigan, claiming to be “duly elected and qualified Electors,” it states. ”A so-called independent Michigan legislature could unilaterally reject the popular vote and send “alternative” elector slates to the electoral college — undermining democracy without any judicial or executive oversight.”

The fake electors included Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, a close Trump ally who is married to state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford). The Maddocks were in Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump protest that devolved into a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Parks hopes the report will provide a greater perspective for voters who are aware of some of the efforts to subvert elections, but perhaps have yet to see the bigger picture.  

“We’re really just trying to lay out the whole picture for folks who are interested,” she said. “Obviously, not the hardcore MAGA crowd, but folks who are maybe aware of one or two bits, but really have not seen just what a coordinated across the board effort it is. It’s just a full-throttle attack on elections and on democracy in Michigan.”


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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.