State canvassers certify Mich. election results during lengthy meeting

2 Dems, 1 Republican member vote in favor

Absentee ballot | Susan J. Demas

Amid national attention and concerns that Republicans may attempt to unlawfully hand Michigan’s election results to President Donald Trump — who lost the state by a significant margin to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden — the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers voted Monday 3-0 to follow their lawful duties and certify the state’s election votes.

Chair Jeannette Bradshaw and member Julie Matuzak, both Democrats, along with Republican Vice Chair Aaron Van Langevelde, all voted in favor of certifying the results after many hours of discussion and input from election experts and officials.

Republican member and longtime GOP activist Norman Shinkle was the lone vote to abstain. He challenged the integrity of Michigan’s election process throughout the meeting and called for an investigation by the state Legislature, which the board voted for unanimously.

Nearly 35,000 viewers watched the meeting’s livestream on YouTube. Thousands of people have registered to comment.  

Michigan Election Law states that the board’s duties are ministerial, meaning that certifying election results for presidential and down-ballot races must be done without exercising individual discretion. Legally, the members legally had no choice but to certify if the certified returns of all 83 counties were presented to them — which they were.

Even certified results from Wayne County were presented, which had been thrown into question last week during a chaotic canvassers meeting where Republican members at first refused to certify, then certified, then attempted to rescind their certification (which legally cannot be done).

Nonetheless, Shinkle and Van Langevelde started the meeting with a slew of questions aimed at the board’s ability to delay certification or investigate claims of election fraud. 

Shinkle’s criticisms and attempts to find wiggle room around established law continued to the end. Van Langevelde, after having his questions answered by experts and officials at the beginning, appeared to accept that the law was clear that the board should certify.

“It is very simple. We have no authority to request an audit, to delay, or block certification,” Van Langevelde said at one point to former GOP U.S. Senate candidate John James’ attorney Charles Spies.

Many Republican officials have repeatedly and baselessly insisted that Biden’s win in Michigan was tainted by fraud and other election misconduct, although no evidence has been presented by the GOP that suggests the Nov. 3 election was mishandled. Trump’s lawyers had issued legal challenges in several key states in Michigan alleging fraud and misconduct, but most have been dismissed already due to a lack of evidence.

On Saturday, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and state GOP Chair Laura Cox directly called on the board to delay its certification of Biden’s Michigan victory. Cox attended Monday’s meeting virtually to again make that request, despite members informing her that it could be contrary to what the law allows for.

GOP leaders urge leeway for state canvassers ahead of certification meeting

“The state’s recommendation is that you certify before you the results of Michigan’s election certified by all of you,” said Jonathan Brater, elections director of the Michigan Bureau of Elections, before any votes were cast. He said that the Bureau had not identified any irregularities besides the typical, occasional human error.

Brater also noted that several small recounts and routine audits will likely occur across the state after results are certified.

Heather Meingast, assistant attorney general, said that an audit cannot be called for until post-election — and “we don’t have statewide results until this board certifies,” Meingast said.

She also clarified that an audit as defined by the Michigan Constitution does not act as a recount, nor does it change results.

Matuzak then motioned that the full statewide results be certified. Van Langevelde said that beforehand, members of the public should be able to make their testimony heard before the board took up the motion.

“I think we have a duty to do this [certification], but I also think we owe it to the people to allow them to speak,” he said.

What then followed was nearly four hours of public comment from election experts, state officials, county clerks, legislators, former legislators, members of the public and more before Democratic members called for a vote.

Christopher Thomas, former Michigan Bureau of Elections director and Daniel Baxter, former Detroit director of elections, both appeared via Zoom to answer some questions from both Republican members.

“The fact of the matter is, Detroit, like many jurisdictions in the state, had a tsunami of mail-in ballots descend upon it and dealt with it as best we could,” Thomas said. “…And I am pleased with what has occurred.”

Shinkle immediately rebutted Thomas’ characterization of the election. “‘Smooth’ is not accurate at all” to describe the process, he said, before asking repeatedly how the board could delay a vote to certify.

“Under what circumstances could there be out there that you think we could delay?” Shinkle asked, specifically pressing Thomas on whether the board could hypothetically wait on certifying the results for 40 days.

“The answer is of course, you can’t vote no,” Thomas said. “…Our law says you can adjourn to await returns and corrections to those returns, but of course it doesn’t say you can say no and go home.” He added that they had a duty to certify if all county returns are there, and that all other actions would have to be performed after certification is finalized.

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

Van Langevelde said there is a lot of “misunderstanding” out there about the board’s role and asked Thomas to clear some things up.

“Are you aware of any legal authority out there that allows us to review those returns as part of the certification process?” Van Langevelde asked, before alluding to election fraud that he inferred may have happened.

Thomas said no, as the board does not act as a court or police authority and therefore has no ability to investigate fraud.

Jeff Timmer, a Republican former member of the board from 2009 to 2012, emphasized that the board’s ministerial duties allow no room for discretion.

“If the board has all the required returns, it has no discretion. It has none. It has zero,” Timmer said. “The board must certify the results today. It is mandatory. … It is a routine ministerial function being performed here today, the same regular and predictable function that occurs after every election.

“Do your mandatory duty. Certify Michigan’s election results,” Timmer said.

Van Langevelde asked if the board has any latitude to review anything else as part of the certification process, to which Timmer said no.

A number of Michigan clerks also spoke and urged members to certify the results and uphold the will of Michigan voters. Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum was forthright in her remarks.

“It’s been reported in the news that at least one of you is considering voting to not certify the election today. I find this shocking and disgusting,” Byrum said. “The time for political games is over. The eyes of our nation are on the four of you today. They’re watching, and they are waiting. A failure to certify these election results will signal to the country that democracy is dying in Michigan.”

Lansing Clerk Chris Swope noted that the GOP-led state Legislature provided much less time than clerks had asked for to process absentee ballots. The short timeframe provided led to votes being tabulated past Nov. 3, which contributed to Republican skepticism of the process.

Former state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, a Republican from Canton Twp., echoed many of the other Republican comments before stating that he may have legitimate evidence of election fraud.

When challenged by a Democratic member of the board and asked whether he had submitted that evidence to Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office, as the state canvassing board is not equipped nor authorized to investigate fraud, Colbeck said simply that he “submitted [his] affidavits to lawyers.”

Nessel confirmed in a tweet shortly after that Colbeck never made such a complaint to her office — and “if he had, we would have fully investigated said claim,” she added.

Shortly before 5 p.m., Democratic members of the board requested that they take a vote on the motion at hand before hearing the rest of the more than 500 public comments.

Van Langevelde spoke up and said he believes allegations of voter fraud should be taken seriously and investigated, but not by the board.

“We must not attempt to exercise power we simply don’t have,” he said, adding that the board has “a legal duty to certify the results of the election.”

Shinkle, however, used his time before the motion to further raise doubt about the integrity of the Nov. 3 election and Michigan’s election process in general. He indicated that he did not plan to vote for certification.

He also asked the state Legislature to do an in-depth review of all processes and procedures in Michigan. After making a motion to ask state lawmakers to investigate, all four members voted in favor.

“Thank you to the Board of Canvassers for performing their duties,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) tweeted out afterwards. “The Senate will honor their unanimous request to closely review Michigan’s elections process to identify much-needed improvements.”

Despite many hundreds more public comments still to be heard, the state canvassing board took a vote Monday to certify the statewide results. Bradshaw, Matuzak and Van Langevelde voted affirmatively, while Shinkle voted to abstain.

If Van Langevelde had also voted with Shinkle, the courts would have likely needed to step in and the two Republicans could have faced punitive actions and even removal.

Now that Michigan’s electoral votes for Biden have officially been certified, the next step in the process is for Michigan’s 16 electors to cast their votes as part of the Electoral College.

The Trump campaign released a statement Monday night regarding the vote, calling it “simply a procedural step.”

“We are going to continue combatting election fraud around the country as we fight to count all the legal votes. Americans must be assured that the final results are fair and legitimate,” Trump senior legal advisor Jenna Ellis said in a statement.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) released a statement as well, acknowledging the board’s action and adding that “the Legislature will uphold the law and respect this result as it works to improve the process for next time.”

Democratic officials celebrated the vote as a win for democracy.

“Democracy has prevailed,” said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. “Today’s vote of the State Board of Canvassers to certify Michigan’s November election confirms the truth: the election was fair and secure, and the results accurately reflect the will of the voters.

“…Our democracy, like the election officials who administer it, is resilient.  Today it and they survived an unprecedented attack on its integrity. There will no doubt be more similar attacks in the future, based in falsehoods and misinformation. But then, as now, we will be ready to respond as always with facts, data, and the truth,” Benson said in a statement.

Detroit rally calls for Trump to concede, Board of State Canvassers to certify Michigan votes.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also chimed in to applaud Bradshaw, Matuzak and Van Langevelde on their votes.

“I commend the three members of the State Board of Canvassers who voted to follow the law and certify the 2020 election results today,” Whitmer said. “The people of Michigan have spoken. President-elect Biden won the state of Michigan by more than 154,000 votes, and he will be our next president on January 20th.”

Ron Bieber, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, praised the board members and especially Van Langevelde “for doing the right thing.”

“When an entire political party puts enormous pressure on civil servants to break the law in an attempt to break our system of governance, we are in a terrible place as a state and as a country. The people have spoken, their votes have been counted, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be inaugurated as president and vice president on January 20.

“Now we need all Republicans to accept reality so we can move forward as a state and as a country,” Bieber added.

Rally outside the meeting

While the Board of State Canvassers met to discuss the certification of the election, more than 100 cars packed the streets outside the Capitol building for a Driving for Democracy caravan.

The caravan was led by We Make Michigan, a coalition of progressive grassroots organizations working to ensure every vote is counted.

The cars, decorated in “certify the election” signs, Black Lives Matter flags and Biden signs, began their parade in Okemos.

Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie Scott said the caravan’s route intentionally avoided hospitals, which was a problem during the Operation Gridlock caravan in April protesting against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order that she put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ghana Goodwin-Dye, a 58-year-old woman from Southfield, said that she joined the caravan Monday because she believes the Board of State Canvassers needs to certify the election results. 

“It’s time,” Goodwin-Dye said. “We need to go ahead and certify the votes. Michigan has stated who they want as they want as their president and that is Joe Biden. And the current president needs to just fess up and admit that he lost.”

During an online press conference, hosted by We Make Michigan, State Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.) said that the Board needs to carry out the certification process so lawmakers can focus on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s imperative that for the good of our democracy and to move the will of the people forward that [the Board of State Canvassers] do their job, and certify Michigan’s election results,” Camilleri said. “However, it’s important that we draw attention to what my Republican colleagues in the Legislature have been up to this past week and demand that they end the partisan games that they’ve been focused on.”

“The people of Michigan have spoken, and it’s time to respect their will and get to work on the serious issues that we face together,” he added.

After the election results were certified, Art Reyes III, executive director of We the People Action Fund, a group involved in hosting the caravan, said “it’s really a shame we had to mount a protest to protect voting rights enshrined in the state and federal constitution.”

“May this be the last time we have to face such ugly threats to democracy. But if Trump and his allies continue to try to silence the will of the people, we will be ready,” Reyes said.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, immigration and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).
Allison Donahue
Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.