Will a Detroit Democrat Hand Trump His Crown?
A single election administrator in Detroit could give Donald Trump four more years.
Election protectionists warn that she was key to Trump’s illegitimate victory in 2016, and that she could do it again in 2020 if she is not removed (not likely at this point) or intensely monitored.
Four years ago, Trump was awarded Michigan’s 16 key Electoral College votes based on an official margin of less than 11,000 votes. But more than 70,000 ballots from around the state came in without presidential preferences — a state record.
These “beheaded” ballots were allegedly cast by voters who stood in line for hours, only to apparently not bother to choose between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Sophisticated hackers can perpetrate ballot beheading with a well-known algorithm that has surfaced in numerous US elections. In 2004, a similar outcome on Indigenous reservations helped give New Mexico to George W. Bush.
In the wake of the 2016 fiasco, the Michigan Election Reform Alliance (MERA) demanded that their state repair their dysfunctional system. MERA had predicted what would go wrong in 2016 in their seminal 2014 report, “Michigan’s Coming Election Cliff.”
Unfortunately, MERA’s predictions all came true. Detroit’s 13-year-old ES&S voting machines broke down en masse, voters waited in long lines, and poorly trained poll workers left a trail of mismatching numbers and missing ballots.
MERA cited their own published research figures pointing out that Michigan vote tabulators had an error rate between 0.26 percent and 1.78 percent. Even the smallest error rate was larger than the 2016 Clinton-Trump margin: 0.22%.
MERA issued a statement following that election documenting the mismanagement of administration in various Michigan jurisdictions.
They also demanded the resignation of Detroit’s chief election official, Janice Winfrey. “In Detroit, where scores of voting machines malfunctioned, poll workers weren’t properly trained and thousands of presidential ballots can’t be recounted because of numerous voting irregularities,” writes Steve Neavling of the Motor City Muckraker.
Neavling also says that Winfrey “has refused to take responsibility for the massive failures that make a mockery of the democratic system and further eroded trust in a fair and accurate election.”
Winfrey is a Democrat. But election protection activists warn that by short-changing vote-rich Detroit, which is dominated by Democrat-leaning voters, she could once again help throw Michigan to Donald Trump.
Key to that warning are the findings of a recount effort prompted by Green Party candidate Jill Stein, whose court case was dismissed when Hillary Clinton refused to support a recount appeal that could have also benefited her own numbers. “We observed the aborted Stein recount and received the reports from several hundred recount observers for Stein, Clinton, and other candidates for President,” stated Jan BenDor, MERA statewide coordinator.
After the three-state recount initiated by 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Trump’s final victory margin remained at 10,704 votes in the Wolverine State – the closest presidential contest in the nation. The official margin between Clinton and Trump, out of Michigan’s 4.8 million votes cast, was .22 percent. The incomplete presidential recount showed that the tabulators miscounted 5 percent of the ballots.
“There was so much documentation of lawbreaking that I asked for a meeting with the FBI to present our summary,” BenDor said.
“Then-US Attorney Barb McQuade arranged for the meeting, which took place in late January 2017. After Mueller was appointed, I called the two agents and asked them to make sure to send our FBI report to the Mueller team,” BenDor added.
MERA outlined arguments that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and related legislation were violated. They alleged widespread under-funding of the elections in majority minority communities including broken down vote tabulators, noting that “30-50 percent of precincts [were] declared too compromised to be ‘recountable.’”
MERA also claimed that there had been violations of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, with the high rate of voters arriving at their polling site, finding they were not on the voter rolls, and having to vote provisionally. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 was violated as well, MERA alleged, by the “failure by local clerks to properly maintain and update centralized voter registration data.” The Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act was violated based on the nearly 75,000 under-voted ballots in the presidential race, according to MERA.
Detroit election officials also reported finding numerous broken security seals on the bags containing ballots and voting material.
Many people believe Michigan elections will be more functional this year with fewer irregularities, due to the 2018 election of Democrats Jocelyn Benson as Secretary of State and Gretchen Whitmer as Governor.
BenDor is not so sure.
In August 2018, Michigan first used its 7,000 new digital scan vote tabulators. In Detroit, using 100 Dominion scanners to count absentee ballots, 25% of the machines jammed in the first two hours, as witnessed by our election observers. Statewide, clerks were poorly trained in the capabilities of these machines, and none of them correctly set the machines to save ballot images. When MERA tried to help several minority candidates to get image copies so they could review their suspicious results in detail, there were no images retained as required by state and federal law.
In November 2018, Michigan elected Whitmer and Benson. MERA met with Whitmer to get her support for their long-ready risk-limiting vote count audit legislation, which had bipartisan sponsors. Whitmer enthusiastically agreed and showed a mastery of their proposal, noted BenDor. During her campaign, Benson met with MERA and incorporated many of their election security recommendations into her platform.
But once in office, Benson proceeded to renege on her promises. As BenDor explains it: “She has refused to order the wireless modems removed from all three brands of tabulators in use. These modems violate federal EAC standards. She has refused our requests to mandate the retention of all digital ballot images and associated security documents. She outright refused to endorse our risk-limiting audit legislation, stating she does not need it. She has basically ignored the recommendations of her own security advisers, including Professor Phil Stark of the University of California-Berkeley, the developer of risk-limiting audits, and Professor Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan, an expert in voting technology security.” (Halderman has become a legend in election protection circles by programming an allegedly “unhackable” voting machine to play the University of Michigan fight song).
Says BenDor: “Benson has never shown much interest in actually improving election administration, has never worked an election, and has a very sketchy knowledge of rules and procedures. She has hired staff who are similarly incompetent and has driven out the civil service veterans. Statewide, the local Clerks are not her fans, and they use unflattering nicknames.”
If Benson is problematic, Detroit election clerk Winfrey perhaps poses an even greater threat to an accurate vote count. The investigatory website Motor City Muckraker called on Detroit election clerk Janice Winfrey to “resign immediately” after the 2016 election.
“Pattern of problems plagues Detroit’s elections for fifteen years” a 2020 Detroit News headline declared, summarizing Winfrey’s election supervision.
“Benson also hired the former longtime Bureau of Elections czar, Chris Thomas. Throughout his 35+ year tenure, Chris Thomas has turned a blind eye to election corruption in Detroit and other minority communities. We keep asking, what is he going to do differently this time?” BenDor asked. “I have talked to poll workers in Detroit who tried to work the August Primary and they describe absolute chaos. Their phone calls to sign up were ignored, the training was useless, many workers did not even show up to their assigned precinct.”
The hope is that the November 2020 election will result in a clear winner in Michigan. Trump is currently trailing Biden by eight points in the polls. No one wants another attempted recount like the one Clinton killed in 2016.
The Stein campaign paid $973,250 for the Michigan recount, but MERA argued it was “doomed from the start.”
Michigan was a toss-up state with both Trump and Clinton having 46.8 percent of the exit polls. Although Trump ended up with 10,704 more votes than Clinton, there was a major problem with “undervotes.” This made the state an ideal recount target. In most other states, the narrow margin would have automatically triggered a statewide recount. Michigan’s trigger is a minuscule 2000 or less vote margin, according to the MERA.
On 75,335 ballots in the presidential election, constituting 1.5 percent of all Michigan votes, there was no vote for president. Michigan voters cast paper ballots on three brands of optical scan tabulators. The state-appointed emergency manager had denied Detroit’s request to spend money on newer voting machines. All of Michigan’s vote tabulators then were at least a decade old, according to the Associated Press. This is the same emergency management lawyer who forced Flint residents to drink from improperly treated, lead-poisoned water to save money.
The recount effort revealed serious operating problems with Michigan’s voting machines. In Detroit, at least 87 voting machines malfunctioned on Election Day, according to city election officials. Numerous precincts in Detroit also lost their poll books — the only record of how many people signed in to vote. Other problems included improperly sealed and transported ballot boxes. A Detroit precinct reported to contain 307 ballots could only produce 52.
Nearly a quarter of all ballots in Wayne County were not properly handled, resulting in discrepancies between the number of ballots in the ballot box and the total number of ballots issued. Detroit election officials also reported finding numerous broken security seals on the bags containing ballots and voting material. Under a 1954 law, 610 of the county’s precincts could not be counted because of the discrepancy between the poll books and the number of ballots issued and counted. Detroit had 30% unrecountable, which was 149 out of 497.
Approximately 11 percent of all the precincts counted statewide showed documented irregularities. In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Lynch, Stein’s attorney Jonathan Abady pointed out that the number was much higher in low-income counties like Branch, where 27 percent of the precincts showed irregularities.
There was an all-out Republican blitz to stop the recount from happening, including legal action. State and federal courts blocked Stein’s recount with two-thirds of the vote uncounted. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette led the charge to shut it down. At the time of Schuette’s actions, the recount was revealing irregularities.
Federal Judge Mark Goldsmith initially allowed the recount to go forward but then reversed himself after Schuette and Michigan courts, including the state Supreme Court, ruled in favor of stopping it. The Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by a 3-2 vote with two recusals. (Chief Justice Robert Young and Justice Joan Larsen recused themselves because they were on President-elect Trump’s short list to be nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Before Judge Goldsmith halted the recount, 2725 of Michigan’s 7786 precincts, roughly a third, were recounted. In the Stein recount, more than 1600 votes were discovered and recorded that had not been counted the first time. This raised the question: In 2016, did the optical scan tabulators decide the US presidency?
Detroit’s performance in the August 2020 State Primary did not offer encouragement. The state’s purchase of new Dominion digital scan tabulators in 2018 did not improve basic election administration. After the primary, there was such an “outcry” that Benson announced she would be jointly overseeing the city of Detroit under the supervision of the highly-criticized Winfrey. The outcry was over the clerk moving polling locations at the last minute and widespread problems with the absentee vote count. “Issues in Detroit threatened voter confidence in the Clerk’s ability to successfully run an election in Michigan’s largest city with the presidency possibly at stake,” the Detroit Free Press reported.
“There is a reason for this corruption, and it goes back to the unholy alliance between big Republican-run corporations and certain Democratic players who got propped up by their money. This year there is a $250 million bond issue on the Detroit ballot. This is money in the cookie jar for those corporate contractors to keep knocking down foreclosed homes. The resulting cleared land will be a boon for Dan Gilbert and Quicken Loans, and the developers who have extensive plans to gentrify the city.
Benson’s husband, Ryan Friedrichs, has been the attorney for the Detroit Land Bank,” says BenDor. It “purchases these homes and knocks them down rather than rehab and rescue them.
Says BenDor: “Friedrichs reported directly to Mayor Duggan, known as ‘Dirty Duggan’ to the locals. Now Friedrichs is working for the big developer Steven Ross. Benson is not going to do anything to get in the way of Duggan staying in power, and he will keep endorsing her.”
Meanwhile, Detroit’s 480,00 voters’ ballots hang in the balance — along with the question of who will win the 2020 presidential election.
Bob Fitrakis & Harvey Wasserman