LANSING, Mich. — Republican Party leaders across the battleground state of Michigan have quietly worked in recent weeks to replace incumbent county election officials with newcomers, some of whom have sought to undermine the public's faith in the 2020 vote.
The trend focuses on four-member county canvassing boards, the bipartisan panels in charge of verifying records and importantly, certifying results. It comes in the midst of an internal party struggle over whether to accept Democratic President Joe Biden's win last year.
On Nov. 1, two members of each board — one Republican and one Democrat — will begin new four-year terms.
Out of Michigan's 11 largest counties, Republicans have nominated new individuals for the positions in eight, according to a Detroit News investigation. In at least four of the counties — 36%— the incumbent GOP canvasser wanted to be renominated but wasn't.
Democrats are concerned that the new canvassers, spurred by former President Donald Trump, will refuse to approve future results or use their positions to interfere in the process. Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party and an elections attorney, labeled the unfolding situation in the state "unprecedented."
The movement has left people on the sidelines, such as Michelle Voorheis, who has served on the Genesee County Board of Canvassers for 13 years. Genesee County Republicans didn't renominate her for another four-year term. In an interview, Voorheis, who used to chair the county GOP, said she believes it's because she's made statements on social media defending the outcome of the last election.
"I don’t know going into the 2022 elections. I don’t know how the canvass is going to go because there is a big learning curve," said Voorheis of the upcoming midterm election in which Michigan will choose a governor.
"Nobody ever even cared about this until now,” she added of canvassing boards.
The panels are not where you want "fringe" people serving, said Chris Thomas, Michigan's former longtime elections director, because the members must have an interest in working together and protecting the stability of the electoral process.
It would create a "mess" if 10 to 15 counties refuse to certify the results in the coming years, forcing state officials and potentially the courts to intervene, Thomas said.
Trump and some of his supporters in Michigan have made unproven claims that there was widespread fraud in the state's vote last year. A series of court rulings, dozens of audits and a probe by the GOP-led Senate Oversight Committee have upheld the outcome.
Still, the assertions and focus on the election administration process are now bleeding into canvassing board selections across Michigan:
—In Michigan's largest county, Wayne, GOP canvasser Monica Palmer said she believes she wasn't renominated by local Republican leaders because she voted to certify the last election. One of the three GOP nominees to replace her was Hima Kolanagireddy, who was apparently the same person Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani presented last year as he pressed state lawmakers to intervene in the 2020 results.
—In the third-largest county, Macomb, Republicans nominated only Nancy Tiseo of Clinton Township to fill an open position even though state law requires three people to be nominated. Tiseo tweeted in November that Trump should suspend meetings of the Electoral College and have "military tribunals" investigate claims about election fraud.
—In northern Michigan's Antrim County, which has been a hotbed for false claims about the 2020 vote, Republicans' canvassing nominees included Victoria Bishop, the spouse of conservative radio commentator "Trucker" Randy Bishop, who moderated an event in June with election critic Mike Lindell, the CEO of My Pillow. During the gathering, Lindell suggested the U.S. Supreme Court would put Trump back in office in August, which didn't occur.
Each Michigan county has a canvassing board that examines election records and eventually votes to certify the outcomes. It's a key step in the process to finalize an election. It comes before the Board of State Canvassers certifies the statewide results.
The boards feature four members, two Republicans and two Democrats. Every two years, the terms of one of the Republicans and one of the Democrats ends, and local party leaders have to nominate three people to fill the next four-year term for their party.
County commissioners are supposed to pick one of the three people from the list. Many counties are currently in the process of considering nominees.
Canvassers usually hold the positions for long periods and don't act in a partisan fashion, said Brewer, the Democrat and elections attorney. What's happening with the overhaul of GOP canvassers in Michigan currently is "dangerous," he said.
"This deliberate attempt by the Republican Party to subvert future Michigan elections by putting big lie supporters on county canvassing boards should alarm everyone who believes in democracy," Brewer said.
But Gustavo Portela, communications director for the Michigan GOP, said the state party's goal is to ensure that county chairs have proper information on what the role of the local canvassers is so "they can make the best choice for their local jurisdictions."
"We believe in local control, and state law is clear that decisions on appointments are left to our duly elected county and district chairs," Portela said.
In counties that span multiple congressional districts, the leaders of party congressional district committees work together to make the canvassing nominations. In counties covered by a single congressional district, the leaders of the county parties make the nominations.
Stan Grot, Shelby Township clerk and chairman of the 10th District GOP committee, and Michelle Smith, chairwoman of the 9th District GOP committee, nominated Tiseo for the position on the Macomb County Board of Canvassers, according to a letter obtained by The Detroit News.
"We are submitting only one nomination for that position," Grot and Smith wrote. "We are confident that Nancy is the right kind of candidate and she is fully qualified for that role. She has the knowledge, experience and temperament to do the job well.
"When making your decision please give Nancy every consideration."
The current GOP canvasser, Barb VanSyckel, didn't want to be renominated, Grot said in an interview. In the past, Democrats have nominated only one person instead of the three individuals state law seems to require, he said.
Asked about Tiseo's past statements on social media that Trump "won" the 2020 election and that he should unilaterally suspend the meeting of the Electoral College, Grot said if "things get out of hand," canvassers can "very easily be removed."
"(In) my conversation with her, she said she will be objective," Grot said. "Maybe, she’ll back off of social media a little bit."
Tiseo said she's interested in ensuring fair and accurate elections. She noted that she worked at a precinct in Detroit in November and gave money to a young male voter who showed up so he could get an Uber to his proper polling place.
"I am for everyone’s legal vote. It’s everyone’s right," Tiseo said.
Asked if she believes the 2020 election was "stolen" from Trump, she responded, "I do not not believe it," adding that she hasn't seen the proof yet.
She tweeted on Nov. 29 in response to Trump that "they (apparently referring to his opponents) stole the election."
In addition to Wayne, Macomb and Genesee, officials in Washtenaw, Ingham, Kalamazoo, Livingston and Saginaw counties said Republicans had not renominated their current canvassers. In some of the counties, the current GOP canvasser apparently did not want to be renominated, but that's not the case in all of the counties.
Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat, said she was disappointed that GOP canvasser Anthony Markwort was not renominated by the local Republican Party. Markwort, a House GOP staffer who didn't agree to an interview, wanted to serve again and did his job well, Byrum said.
"It is very disappointing that the Republican chair has opted to go with conspiracy believers and election problem makers against individuals who are willing to work with a critical eye on certifying the election," Byrum said.
Likewise, Genesee County Clerk John Gleason, a Democrat, said the Republicans in his county had proposed "wackos" fill the seat on the canvassing board instead of Voorheis, whom he described as qualified for the job.
"Whatever nut case they want to put on there, we’ll put them on there," said Gleason, noting that the Republican who remains on the board is "common sense."
Genesee County Republican Party Chairman Matthew Smith didn't respond to a request for comment. Among the GOP nominees is Kathy Keller of Burton, who said she was inspired to seek the position by testimony about the 2020 election by Linda Lee Tarver, a GOP activist and former Michigan Department of State employee.
Tarver was involved in a lawsuit that sought to have the GOP-controlled Legislature intervene in the 2020 results.
“I just want a free and fair election for all, for everyone’s voice," Keller said. "I think one vote should equal one vote.”
Some officials have noted that Keller recently appeared at a Genesee County Commissioners meeting and labeled the commissioners "Nazis."
"I do believe they’re acting like Nazis,” said Keller of the commissioners in an interview, referring to government mandates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, Michigan's election certification process narrowly avoided major problems that could have thrown the matter into court despite Biden winning statewide by 154,000 votes, or 3 percentage points.
In 2016, Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes, or three-tenths of a percentage point.
In Wayne County, the two Republicans, including Palmer, initially declined on Nov. 17 to certify the 2020 results, citing a high rate of out-of-balance precincts in Detroit, meaning the voter totals and ballot totals didn't match. However, later in the evening, the GOP members changed course and signed off on the tallies.
A week later, on Nov. 23, many Republicans pressed the Board of State Canvassers to delay certifying the statewide results. The state Republican Party and the Republican National Committee wanted a "full, transparent audit" before certification took place. But Republican state board member Aaron Van Langevelde crossed over to join the two Democratic board members to support validating the totals and Biden's victory.
"We have a clear legal duty to certify the results of the election, as shown by the returns that were given to us," Van Langevelde said at the time. "We cannot and should not go beyond that. As John Adams once said, 'We are a government of laws, not men.'"
The other Republican on the panel, Norm Shinkle, abstained.
Earlier this year, the Michigan Republican Party declined to renominate Van Langevelde for the Board of State Canvassers, arguing he didn't express interest in the position. The party nominated three other individuals, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer chose Tony Daunt, then-executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, to fill the post. Daunt has been openly critical of both Trump and those who have tried to undermine the last election.
Republican congressional district chairs in Metro Detroit didn't renominate Palmer to continue serving on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers when the term concludes at the end of October.
“I think this is clearly an attempt (to ensure) that I don’t remain on the Board of Canvassers because I did eventually certify the election," Palmer said.
For Palmer's position, Metro Detroit Republican officials proposed Rob Boyd of Brownstown, Josephine Brown of Westland and Hima Kolanagireddy of Northville. A person by the name Hima Kolanagireddy was one of the witnesses presented by Trump attorney Giuliani when he appeared before the Michigan House Oversight Committee on Dec. 2.
She had been a poll challenger, representing the state Republican Party, at the TCF Center, where Detroit's absentee ballots were counted. Kolanagireddy didn't respond last week to a request for comment. None of the GOP district chairs who were supposed to have been involved in picking three nominees for the canvassing positions provided explanations last Monday about why Palmer wasn't renominated.
"Thank you very much. Great call. Have a nice life," said William Rauwerdink, chairman of the 14th District GOP committee, before hanging up on a Detroit News reporter who asked about the selections.