This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
Brandy Robinson is exhausted. Since Election Day, she said her blood pressure has skyrocketed as she heard one false claim after another alleging voter fraud in Detroit.
President Donald Trump’s unfounded accusations, and two Wayne County Board of Canvassers members’ attempts not to certify the county’s election results, have brought her friends to tears during late-night discussions.
“[This year] is a throwback to generations past – to poll taxes, to literacy tests, just to open active suppression of the Black vote,” said Robinson, 43, a Detroit-based attorney.
Michigan’s election results are official, with Democratic President-elect Joe Biden winning the state by 154,000 votes, after three of four members of the Board of State Canvassers voted to certify election results from the state’s 83 counties on Nov. 23.
But for many residents like Robinson, concerns about efforts to disenfranchise voters of color in the state’s largest and predominantly African-American city this year will linger.
On Nov. 20, three Detroit voters represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit against Trump’s campaign, saying a targeted effort to delay certification of Wayne County’s election results repeated “the worst abuses in our nation’s history, as Black Americans were denied a voice in American democracy for most of the first two centuries of the Republic.”
“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 flatly prohibits Defendants’ efforts to disenfranchise Black people and assault our Republic,” the complaint read.
This year, conservative groups sent hundreds of poll challengers to scrutinize the absentee ballot counting process at Detroit’s TCF Center — but GOP challengers were few and far between in other large Democratic cities in Michigan, clerks said.
In Ann Arbor, Deputy Clerk Steve Gerhart said there were 16 Democratic challengers and no GOP poll challengers at the city’s absent voter counting boards.
“I was expecting them in the AV count board with all the rhetoric that was going on, but there were none,” Gerhart said.
In Detroit, some conservative challengers acknowledge they were told to challenge every ballot. Their accusations later were featured in lawsuit affidavits that a Wayne County judge ruled had no credibility in part because challengers skipped training.
The narratives nonetheless persisted, adding grist to five failed lawsuits from Trump and his supporters in Michigan, even though vote breakdowns in Detroit have stayed consistent over several presidential elections and Biden received fewer votes in the city than Democrat Hillary Clinton did when she ran for president in 2016.
In battleground states across the country, the Trump campaign’s pattern was similar.
In Pennsylvania, Trump alleged a lack of meaningful access for poll challengers in Philadelphia, the city with that state’s largest African-American population. In Georgia, the president made false allegations about voter fraud in Atlanta, the city with the state’s greatest number of Black residents.
Jonathan Diaz, counsel to Campaign Legal Center, a voting advocacy organization, said the math is simple.
“There is no demographic group in America that has voted more consistently for Democrats than African-American voters,” he said. “And so, the easiest way to target Democratic voters is just to target areas that you know have large African-American populations.”
National exit polls show Black voters favored Biden 87-12 percent, with Trump receiving more support than he did in 2016 (when he got 8 percent of votes from African Americans.)
In Detroit, Biden received 94 percent of the vote last month, down 1 percentage point from Clinton in 2016 and down from 98 percent for Barack Obama in 2012.
Maureen Taylor, a plaintiff in the NAACP suit, and the state chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said Trump has perpetuated a narrative that people of color are not to be trusted.
“Our message [in the suit] was ‘You have to stop,’” Taylor said.
Republican activists said race has no role in their objections to Detroit’s election. For the first time, absentee ballots composed the majority of ballots in Michigan, and 71 percent of Detroit’s absentee counting boards were “out of balance,” meaning the number of ballots did not match the number of envelopes.
That is a similar percentage to the August primary, when concerns from state and county canvassers prompted state officials to provide more resources to Detroit for the general election. (When brick-and-mortar precincts are considered, Detroit’s percentage increased to 72 percent balanced, a vast improvement from August and 2016).
Elections experts say the issues are the result of minor human error, rather than fraud, and pointed out that the influx of absentee ballots caused problems in cities statewide. More than 50 percent of absentee precincts in Canton Township and Livonia, for instance, were unbalanced.
“It has nothing to do with Black or white,” maintained Monica Palmer, a Republican canvasser in Wayne County who initially refused to certify the county’s election and then unsuccessfully sought to rescind her vote.
She proposed certifying all of Wayne County, except for Detroit, and said she was doing so to allow for an audit, rather than overturning results. But one federal lawsuit from a conservative group sought to eliminate all votes in Wayne, Washtenaw and Ingham counties, some 1.2 million votes. The suit was dropped.
Laura Cox, chair of the Michigan Republican Party, told the state canvassers on Monday that Trump voters were actually the ones being disenfranchised by “anomalies” and “procedural irregularities” in Detroit.
“Election after election, we’ve had the same issues. We certify, then we forget until the next election,” Cox said. “If folks are proud of 71 percent out-of-balance count in the largest community in the state, then we have very different ideas.”
A history of barriers
Detroiters said the claims about elections were steeped in a history of suspicion toward communities of color.
“People just assume that because it’s Detroit, and because there are Black voters here, that there must be people who are incompetent who are handling the process, who couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to conduct an election that is accurate and that is done according to the proper procedures,” said Robinson, the Detroit attorney.
Voting barriers for communities of color in the nation. date to the inception of U.S. democracy, Diaz said.
Even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, Diaz said voting laws that appeared generally applicable – such as voter ID policies that require voters provide a form of identification – disproportionately restricted Black people’s access to polling places. Voters of color are also more likely to face longer lines at the polls and to be purged from voter registration rolls, Diaz said.
Ken Whittaker, director of movement politics with the Michigan People’s Campaign, a grassroots environmental and racial justice organization, said Detroit was a perfect target for attempts at voter suppression, with “a citizenry that’s used to being stepped on, and might not fight back after years and years of being beat down and taken advantage of.”
For Whittaker, efforts to disqualify Detroit’s votes were reminiscent of recent emergency manager laws in Detroit, which allowed the state to appoint financial managers to replace elected officials during a crisis.
“It was a rebuke of the citizens’ voices, the same thing that we’re looking at now,” he said. “We vote, and then you say our votes don’t matter.”
Poll challengers at the TCF Center
Some Detroiters said conservative activists raised so many allegations of fraud because they were so intent on finding it, even if it wasn’t there.
In preparation for Election Day, conservative groups – including the Election Integrity Fund and the Michigan GOP – trained hundreds of supporters to serve as poll challengers.
The groups pointed to previous snafus that occurred at the TCF Center during the August primary, which they said they believed challengers would safeguard against. During the training sessions months before the election, some conservative activists set the foundation for legal action.
In a training with the Election Integrity Fund, Tim Griffin, the session leader and special counsel with the Thomas More Society, a conservative law firm in Chicago, told challengers to take copious notes because “You may be a witness in a court case.”
Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action, a grassroots organization for economic and housing justice, who served as a nonpartisan poll challenger at the TCF Center, said he wouldn’t be surprised if challengers came with a hope of participating in a lawsuit.
“These folks had planned and had attempted for this to be their primary contribution to the election,” Snyder said.
Whittaker, who also served as a poll challenger with the ACLU, said at one point, some of the conservative challengers asked which precinct tables had “the most Black voters.”
They frequently challenged every possible vote, he said.
“Those challengers were not making it hidden what their agendas were,” Whittaker said.
GOP challengers didn’t see it that way.
“Challengers are just another check on the system,” said Marian Sheridan, a poll challenger and co-founder of the Michigan Conservative Coalition.
But in other large and Democratic-leaning counties around the state, conservative poll challengers were largely absent.
Chris Swope, the Lansing City Clerk, said political parties and sponsoring organizations were allowed a maximum of four poll challengers each at the city’s absentee ballot counting location, but only one from the GOP showed up.
In Warren, Michigan’s third-largest city, the two GOP challengers present had “a lot of questions, but not a lot of challenges,” said Warren deputy clerk Lisa Diolordi.
From the challengers’ days in the TCF Center came hundreds of affidavits, which the Trump campaign attempted to employ in its lawsuits in Michigan seeking to delay the certification of election results.
In dismissing one of the campaign lawsuits, Wayne County Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny wrote the challengers’ claims were “incorrect and not credible.”
“It’s a racist target. . .These are dog whistles when they talk about large cities that they claim are known sites of corruption,” said Ron Stefanski, 60, of Detroit.
Same goes for canvassers’ attempts not to certify election results, voters said.
“Whether it’s explicit or implicit, it definitely was race-related,” said Dexter Mason, 29, of Detroit. “It’s painful. That’s my vote and I know what I was targeted for.”
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