Trump’s Michigan Poll Watchers Make Few Clear Fraud Accusations
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s campaign is suing to stop Michigan from certifying an election he lost by nearly three percentage points based largely on anecdotal grievances from Republican poll watchers, who say they were bullied but whose claims show no evidence of wide-scale fraud.
The campaign filed a federal lawsuit in Michigan early Wednesday that seeks to stop Trump from officially losing a race in which he trails Democrat Joe Biden by more than 146,000 votes. A similar request filed by Trump supporters was denied on Friday by a Michigan state court judge who criticized poll-watcher affidavits filed in that case as “not credible” and “rife with speculation and guess-work about sinister motives.”
The Michigan cases are part of Trump’s legal strategy across five states where he lost to Biden and is pursuing longshot challenges. The suits he’s filed challenging elements of the elections have largely been rejected by judges -- but Trump has used them for fundraising, and sowed doubt in Biden’s clear election victory.
Trump went days without providing any evidence for his claims of a “rigged” election before the Michigan case was held up by Republicans as a breakthrough. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany waved the stack of affidavits on Fox News late Tuesday, hours before the federal case was actually filed. “These are real people, real allegations,” she said.
Series of Suspicions
But a review of the 100 Michigan affidavits shows few accusations of outright vote fraud, much less at the level required to have swung the election in Biden’s favor by such a significant margin. Instead, it’s overwhelmingly a series of suspicions -- like a ballot box left unattended, but not seen being tampered with -- and complaints of hostile treatment of Republicans.
“The idea that these affidavits could in any way call into question the election result is absurd,” said Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan who reviewed the affidavits. He is a former senior Justice Department official under President Barack Obama. “This is an abuse of the legal process at this point.”
Michael Gilbert, a law professor at the University of Virginia, echoed that. “My strong sense is that these affidavits have no bearing on the outcome of the race in Michigan,” he said, adding that he doubts the claims are all true. “But even if they are true, they do not provide evidence of fraud.”
The affidavits instead paint a picture of a fraught Wednesday at Detroit’s TCF convention center where votes were being counted as Trump began to unleash unfounded claims of fraud. Republican volunteers largely from outside the city arrived -- some said in their affidavits that they read about the need for volunteers that day on Facebook -- to audit votes with only brief training. Protesters chanted “stop the count” at the convention center that day.
Their affidavits raise a series of observations where the effect is not clear. For instance, one Republican poll challenger, Articia Bomer, said she saw 27 ballots inserted into a counting machine “at least five times.” An affidavit by a poll watcher named Brett Kinney said he witnessed a worker reach into an envelope marked “invalid ballots” and “process them with valid ballots.”
“What these affidavits are is a lot of insinuation, a lot of assumptions, a lot of conjecture, a lot of speculation -- no real proof of anything like voter fraud, and certainly nothing close to approaching something that would impugn the 150,000-vote margin that Joe Biden has,” Bagenstos said.
Michigan’s elections administrator, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, has not yet responded to the Trump campaign’s federal lawsuit, but a spokesman, Jake Rollow, said the suit is baseless.
“It is a press release masquerading as a legal claim designed to promote false claims aimed at eroding the public’s confidence in Michigan elections,” Rollow said in a statement. “But it does not change the truth: Michigan’s elections were conducted fairly, securely, transparently, and the results are an accurate reflection of the will of the people.”
Trump is also fundraising off the affidavits, although the fine print reveals that much of that money is being steered to his own political action committee.
In the state case decided Friday, which sought to block certification of Detroit’s election results, former Michigan elections director Christopher Thomas submitted an affidavit debunking several of the claims made by Trump’s poll watchers. He explained that many actions they identify as potential fraud had innocent explanations and, in any case, could not possibly have resulted in fake votes being cast.
Thomas’s affidavit was given great weight by Wayne County Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny in rejecting the state case. He compared it favorably to the “numerous affidavits from election challengers who paint a picture of sinister fraudulent activities occurring both openly in the TCF Center and under the cloak of darkness.”
Many poll watchers said they were kept too far away from election workers to closely observe ballots or that the workers were hostile toward them. One affidavit complained that lawyers present were all “ideologically far-left.” Another said poll workers were “rolling their eyes” when they saw a ballot cast for Trump. Many of the affidavits indicate that some Republicans were at times disputing every ballot, or groups of ballots, fraying the patience of others.
“It was very clear that GOP observers/challengers were not welcomed,” one poll watcher, Jean Leonard, wrote in an affidavit. Another, Emily Steffans, wrote that she was accused of being in a “cult” for supporting Trump. “I was told ‘go back to the suburbs, Karen,’” Jennifer Lindsey Cooper wrote.
‘No Real Proof’
Clashes ensued. James Frego, a 57-year-old bankruptcy attorney, said in an affidavit that he blocked a police officer from closing a door at the convention center and asked how many poll challengers were inside. The officer said the room was at capacity.
Frego said he was then pulled away, handcuffed, put in a police car and issued a misdemeanor citation for disturbing the peace. Another man said he was escorted out of the arena by police for “standing my ground” after being denied access to the ballot-counting room.
Lawrence Garcia, the Detroit city attorney and an election commissioner, has said there were about 225 Republican, 250 Democrat and around 70 independent challengers at the convention Center. Election officials stopped admitting people because they accidentally had allowed the number of challengers to exceed the 134-person maximum, he said last week.
Issues of race are prominent in many of the affidavits. Trump’s federal suits in Michigan and Pennsylvania focus on two cities, Detroit and Philadelphia, that are predominantly Black, while many of his poll watchers came from elsewhere in those states.
Several affidavits complain that some election workers wore “Black Lives Matter” garments, with one criticizing that as a “political cause.” One poll watcher, a voter of Chinese descent named Qian Schmidt, said he was harassed by “a young, African American, non-credentialed individual” who told Schmidt he was “not American,” according to his affidavit. Another poll watcher, Samuel Harris, said he was “verbally assaulted with racial slurs,” but didn’t specify them.
A pregnant White woman named Kathleen Daavettila wrote in her affidavit that she “was not treated with respect by a single person.” She wrote that she saw “three White males being thrown out by the police,” and she left out of “safety for myself and my unborn baby.”
Suspicions Without Evidence
Other affidavits in the Trump campaign’s federal suit raise suspicions about the election without clear evidence as to what happened. Poll challenger Andrew Miller said he witnessed a table with “duplicating ballots” and that his challenges were ignored. Braden Giacobazzi said in his affidavit that 35 ballots “appeared to have pink challenge stickers on them,” and that none “appeared” to be in a digital voter database. But he conceded he was too far away to see for sure.
“There was no signature comparison being conducted on absentee ballots,” wrote Ulrike Sherer, another poll challenger. Some affidavits said it appeared ballots may have been scanned twice -- but the poll watchers also often said they weren’t sure.
Several affidavits allege poll workers entered the names of voters into computer systems with the birth date Jan. 1, 1900. City officials have said that’s a placeholder required in voter software, and the date was permissible for provisional ballots. They say it’s not a sign of fraud.
Poll challenger Cynthia Brunell named several voters in her affidavit whom she claimed didn’t sign their ballots. She cited 11 total irregularities. Another affidavit cited seven ballots cast in-person by people who had requested mail ballots -- but the poll watcher didn’t know if those people had actually submitted their mail ballots or if they’d been counted.
One poll watcher said he saw a vote-counting machine jam. “Election workers then reran the box of ballots,” he said -- but he admitted he wasn’t sure if the ballots were counted once, or twice.
In his affidavit in the state court case, former elections director Thomas addressed many of the allegations. He said several of the poll watchers appeared to have confused a daily poll list of people who voted with the state’s list of qualified voters, to which most election workers would not have been able to add names. He said steps like signature comparisons had already been completed by the time ballots arrived at the TCF Center.
“What they perceive as an irregularity could be standard operating procedure,” said Gilbert, the law professor. “It’d be a good idea to determine what, if anything, could be improved going forward. But there’s nothing here that amounts to a reason to delay certification of the vote in Michigan.”
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