Experts say state canvassers have only one role: Certify the election

Voters wait in a line that stretches to a sign reading "100 foot line" in Fowlerville on Election Day 2020. | Matt Schmucker

A panel of Michigan election experts agreed on Friday that the only role of the Board State of Canvassers is to certify state election results. 

“Their duties are to receive and certify. That’s it,” said John Pirich, a Michigan State University law professor and longtime GOP election lawyer. “There is no reason to delay.”  

The discussion took place against the backdrop of uncertainty over the Board State of Canvassers vote next week amid continued GOP claims of election irregularities that they failed to prove in court.

President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, won Michigan over President Donald Trump by about 150,000 votes, according to unofficial returns. 

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Seated on the panel, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Michigan, were Pirich; Mark Brewer, a Goodman Acker attorney and a former Michigan Democratic Party chair; Kamilia Landrum, Detroit NAACP executive director; and Steve Liedel, a Dykema law firm attorney and chief general counsel to former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Brewer pointed out that the origin of the law that defines the role of the bipartisan board goes back to the mid 1950s after contentious state gubernatorial elections that resulted in razor-thin reelection margins of victories in 1950 and 1952 for then Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, a Democrat. The GOP-led state Legislature controlled the certification process during those days. Vote recounts were carried out in both years.   

“That was a partisan board because of its structure, which was dominated by one party or another,” Brewer said. 

The Board State of Canvassers is scheduled to meet on Monday. The four-member body has two Democratic appointees and two Republican appointees. Jeannette Bradshaw, a Democrat who is recording secretary of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58, chairs the body. Aaron Van Langevelde, a Republican attorney who works for the House GOP caucus, is vice chair. 

The other two members are Norman Shinkle, chair of the Michigan Republican Party’s 8th Congressional District committee, and Julie Matuzak, a Democrat who was elected to the Macomb County Board of Commissioners. 

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Shinkle told the Washington Post that he is leaning toward calling for a delay in the certification until an official audit has been completed. 

“I do think with all of the potential problems, if any of them are true, an audit is appropriate,” Shinkle said. “I take one step at a time, and if we can get more information, why not?”

On Friday, Republican U.S. Senate nominee John James, who also has refused to concede to U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) — who won won by 92,000 votes — asked the board not to certify the statewide election results without an audit.

“I submit this request because I am interested in the truth and protecting the integrity of our elections,” James said. “Sometimes the truth takes time to surface, and it’s rarely easy to get to.”

As the Advance first reported, James has established a legal defense fund with the Republican National Committee and has taken a similar stance to Trump in alleging election problems in Michigan.

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Is there any audit function for the Board State of Canvassers to play? 

Pirich, Brewer and Liedel, said no. However, the state Legislature has the power to carry out an audit function but only after board certification.  

“The statute says canvass and certify,” Brewer said about the state Board of Canvassers role. “It doesn’t say audit. It doesn’t say investigate.” 

The board could act with three members, according to Liedel. If a deadlock occurs, the board could be ordered by a court to certify the election. The governor, with due process and a hearing, also could remove a member of the board and appoint a replacement, as the Advance previously reported. 

On Tuesday, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers had a contentious meeting in which the board’s two Republicans, William Hartmann and Monica Palmer, initially voted not to certify Wayne County election results. The board deadlocked at 2-2, with the two Democrats, Jonathan Kinloch and Allen Wilson, voting in favor.

Dozens of residents spoke out against the move and the story spread over social media. Later in the evening, the Republicans changed their minds and voted to certify. As part of a compromise, the board directed the Secretary of State’s office to do a comprehensive audit of precincts that had minor discrepancies in vote totals.

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However, after Trump called them, Hartmann and Palmer issued affidavits that they want to rescind their votes, which the Secretary of State said is not a legal option.

Several GOP-led lawsuits that challenged Michigan election results were either dismissed or withdrawn. However, a joint Senate and House panel convened another hearing Thursday on election problems. It has subpoenaed the Bureau of Elections.

And on Friday, State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) are scheduled to visit Trump at the White House. Speaker-elect Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) and Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) were also shown in media video arriving in Washington.

The meeting is largely considered to be a play to urge GOP leadership to unlawfully overturn election results in Michigan and hand the victory to Trump instead.

However, Landrum said that she is confident that all state results will be certified, including Wayne County.

“The process of certifying the votes needs to be done and needs to be completed,” she said.

When asked whether the state Legislature has a role in certifying the state election results, Brewer said no. The GOP-led state Legislature could pass a bill affecting the state vote after board certification but that would require the governor to sign the legislation. If that were to occur, it is highly unlikely that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, would sign such a bill.  

The Electoral College is scheduled to meet on Dec. 14. 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.