We could hardly blame you if you missed it last night, given how fast the story was developing, but just in case you’re hearing this for the first time: Republicans in Detroit, Michigan did their best to cast aside American democracy for good last night. And here’s the scariest thing—they almost succeeded at it. Only after hours of withering public commentary and fully earned scorn did the Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers reverse course, agreeing to certify the county’s election results and hand its electoral votes over to the man the state’s residents chose to be President, Joe Biden. In a state the Biden ended up winning handily—by 2.7% of the vote, and almost 150,000 raw votes—local Republicans absolutely didn’t care if they reversed the results of the entire election. They were fully prepared to disenfranchise almost 10 million American voters.
Suffice to say, that is an utterly horrifying thought, and one of the most shocking attacks on the very idea of American democracy we’ve seen to date—which is saying something, in this election. Naturally, the thought of an entire state being disenfranchised by a pair of rogue, county-level politicians drew the condemnation of national election observers, reporters and prominent Democrats, while local Republicans began a cheerleading campaign to strip the vote away from Detroit. Those premature celebrations soon spread all the way to Donald Trump’s inner circle, and the President was soon gleefully tweeting about Wayne County’s decision not to certify its election results … apparently unaware that by the time he tweeted, the County Board of Canvassers had reversed its position and certified the results after all. It was the exact sort of instant humiliation that has been par for the course with Trump for the last few weeks.
To illustrate just how fragile our democracy is, and how vulnerable it is to bad actors knowingly exploiting its assumption that we respect the democratic process, here’s a rough breakdown of the events that led to Michigan almost throwing away its own election.
Tuesday was Michigan’s chosen date for when the state was meant to certify its results from the Nov. 3, 2020 election, and it wasn’t expected to be particularly contentious, given Biden’s comfortable margin of victory—more than 10 times the margin by which Trump won Michigan over Hillary Clinton in 2016, which was only about 11,000 votes. That certification process passed without drama, despite the much slimmer margin.
On Tuesday evening, however, the two Republican members of the four-person Wayne County Board of Canvassers (Monica Palmer and William Hartman) initially voted against certifying the county’s election results, resulting in a deadlock with the board’s two Democratic members. As reasoning, they cited discrepancies and imbalances that resulted in many of the county’s precincts having vote totals that didn’t match poll books and voter rolls. This deadlock, if it remained in place, would have resulted in the decision moving up to the Michigan Board of State Canvassers, and then potentially onto the Republican-controlled state senate, which would then have had a chance to subvert the will of the people by appointing their own slate of electors.
The talk of “discrepancies” of course calls to mind President Donald Trump’s constant, baseless claims of non-existent massive voter fraud in the 2020 election, but in reality such discrepancies and clerical errors are completely normal in any large metropolitan area—especially in times of massive turnout and complicated voting procedures. Although 71% of county precincts did indeed have such discrepancies, the local Republicans chose not to note that these imbalances often involved tiny handfuls of votes that in no way could have affected Biden’s large lead in the state. In fact, the exact same sort of discrepancies also existed in 2016, but that didn’t stop the Wayne County Board of Canvassers from quickly certifying the results then, despite Trump’s much smaller margin of victory.
Monica Palmer, one of the two Republican members of the board, then made the unprecedented suggestion that the Wayne County Board of Canvassers could certify the results … while exclusively leaving out hundreds of thousands of votes from Detroit, a majority Black city that voted overwhelmingly from Biden. This went over about as well as you’d expect it to go over, and was reported by NYT correspondent Kathy Gray.
Thankfully, the assembled observers physically present at the meeting, as well as the hundreds watching live via Zoom, weren’t about to stand by and watch two local GOP members bypass both the law and the will of the people. Hours of withering criticism from the observers quickly pointed out the massive hypocrisy at play, with local business owner Ned Staebler, the CEO of Detroit urban research and technology business TechTown, becoming an instant Zoom celebrity when he said the following:
“The Trump stain, the stain of racism that you, William Hartman and Monica Palmer, have covered yourself in, is going to follow you throughout history.” He went on to say that they would “forever be known in southeastern Michigan as two racists who did something so unprecedented that they disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Black voters in the city of Detroit.”
By this point, the story was getting national coverage, and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who represents Wayne County, took to Twitter to correctly describe the decision in progress as “horrifyingly racist and a subversion of our democracy.”
Eventually, the Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers seemingly heard enough, deciding that the county’s actual residents weren’t going to sit there and idly twiddle their thumbs while they were actively disenfranchised. They therefore reversed their decision, voting to certify the results while also passing a resolution calling on the Michigan Secretary of State to audit the precincts that showed discrepancies between absentee ballot counts and votes recorded in ballot books, in order to reduce future discrepancies. And just like that, within the space of an hour, Michigan’s election went from potentially upended to back on track.
But the frightening thing is that besides the public pressure, there’s very little that could have been done in this situation to compel Michigan’s GOP to honor the results of its own election. In the end, it still came down to the personal decision of those two Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, and no amount of consternation or public outcry could have stopped them from voting against certification if that’s what they wanted to do. Only a thorough public shaming prevented these two people from declaring war on democracy itself, and can we really rely on that working in the future as the GOP continues to normalize autocratic behaviors as acceptable? As if to underscore this point, Trump campaign senior legal adviser Jenna Ellis referred to the Wayne County Board of Canvassers reversing its decision as “mob rule.” To reiterate: She referred to honoring the will of the electorate, in which 150,000 more people voted for Biden, as “mob rule.” Is it, Jenna? Or is that how votes work?
That’s why it’s hard to walk away from this result with a sunny feeling of optimism—it was a stark illustration of just how fragile these systems are, and how dependent they are upon the assumption that the people in charge will follow the rules, without anything to compel them to do so. At least we can take some comfort in the strength of Detroit’s electorate standing up for democracy, however. In the words of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel: “Don’t mess with Wayne County.”