When Donald Trump was scrambling in November of 2020 to overturn an election he clearly lost, my home state of Michigan was directly in his crosshairs. Nancy Tiseo, a Republican activist from Macomb County—home to the legendary “Reagan Democrats”—was ready to join him on the ramparts.
Tiseo’s prescription: The president should declare martial law, call off the December meeting of the Electoral College, and cancel January Senate runoffs in Georgia. “Military tribunals” are needed, Tiseo wrote on Twitter, “to properly investigate & resolve the cyber warfare 11-3-20 election issue.”
A year later, this fox is guarding her hometown henhouse. As of Oct. 28, Tiseo is the newest member of the Macomb County Board of Canvassers, responsible for overseeing the elections she has denounced as hopelessly corrupt.
Welcome to Michigan’s twisted, terrifying politics, where Democrats and even some Republicans fear that a Trumpist purge of local and state election officials could lead to even greater chaos than last time.
If a contest were held today, Trump might stand a decent chance of winning Michigan the old-fashioned way, by getting more votes. But the political temperature in 2024 may be very different, so it’s no surprise that Trump acolytes are already starting to meddle with the thermometer. With his loyalists in charge of certifying votes, it’s possible Trump could accomplish in 2024 what he was unable to achieve in 2020: a stolen election.
In Michigan’s 83 counties, bipartisan canvassing boards, made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, are charged with compiling, cross-checking, and then certifying election results tabulated by municipal and township officials. A four-person state canvassing board, also evenly split between the two major parties, certifies statewide elections (including presidential races). State law mandates at least three votes to certify an election, a procedure that promotes political stability by requiring representatives of both parties to sign off on final results.
But what if one party refuses?
Tiseo, who declined my interview request, is not the only 2020 skeptic who now has a grip on Michigan’s election machinery. “Trump activists are heeding Steve Bannon’s call to take over the country, precinct by precinct,” says Barb Byrum, a Democrat serving her third term as Ingham County clerk.
Detroit News reporter Craig Mauger discovered that GOP county and congressional district organizations have moved to replace long-serving Republican canvassers in eight of the state’s 11 most populous counties. Wayne County, where Detroit is located, was the site of a critical, contentious canvassing board dispute in 2020. Commissioners there recently approved a new GOP canvasser named Robert Boyd. He says he would not have voted to certify last year’s election results. “I believe they were inaccurate,” he told the Detroit Free Press.
In Genesee County, the GOP purge claimed Michelle Voorheis, a Republican leader who served 13 years on the county Board of Canvassers and opposed Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. She liked him as president, especially the way he struck a chord with industrial constituencies in Flint and surrounding communities. “In my township,” she says, “it used to be you couldn’t get elected as a Republican to save your life. Now we’ve got tons of Republicans, mostly your blue-collar older people. They all went for Trump.”
But Voorheis is not happy with the former president’s ongoing claims about “pervasive voter fraud” in Michigan, where Biden outpolled Trump by more than 150,000 votes. “I had to draw the line when all these allegations began flying around,” Voorheis told me. “There were not 150,000 fraudulent votes in the state of Michigan.” She speaks proudly of working with local officials from both parties to ensure a reliable vote count. “Our election system is one of the safest in the entire world,” she said. “And now people have no confidence in it.”
Voorheis was recently replaced as a county canvasser by Eric Stewart, a pastor she calls the “least crazy” of three people put forward for the post by local Republicans. “Every last one of them believes all this fraud happened and that I participated in it,” she said. “It’s sad. People I’ve known for 30 years are literally attacking my integrity.”
The integrity of Michigan’s entire election process was nearly derailed in 2020 when two Wayne County GOP canvassers initially refused to certify their local count, pointing to thoroughly debunked claims about “irregularities” in Detroit. They eventually reversed themselves, but only after immense public pressure. (One of the objectors, William Hartmann, was also a vaccine skeptic—and recently died from COVID-19.)
Michigan’s electoral logjam only broke late in the afternoon of Nov. 23, 2020, with pivotal results for the country. GOP state canvasser Aaron Van Langevelde surprised many people (but not me) by casting the deciding vote to recognize that Michigan’s 16 electoral votes belonged in Biden’s column. Within hours, General Services Administrator Emily Murphy “ascertained” that Biden had won the national election after a stunning nearly three-week delay.
But what happens if Michigan GOP canvassers go rogue next time? Nobody really knows. “I’ve been practicing election law since the 1980s, and everybody obeys the rules. Until now,” said attorney Mark Brewer, a former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. Brewer and several other Democrats I spoke with were confident—mostly—that legal remedies would defuse any potential electoral sabotage.
A court, for example, could order recalcitrant canvassers to certify a valid election (although it’s not hard to imagine a person with Nancy Tiseo’s worldview defying such an edict, regardless of fines or threats of jail time). Canvassers can be removed for cause, and if a county board fails to certify its own election results, the task can be kicked upstairs to the Michigan State Board of Canvassers. Still, any delays could cause turmoil that could then be taken advantage of by a Republican-controlled state Legislature. (The GOP, with a generous dose of gerrymandering, has controlled both the Michigan House and Senate for more than a decade. Voters approved an independent redistricting commission in 2018, which is now in the process of drawing new election maps.)
Our hopes for a reliable, certifiable 2024 election in Michigan could rest on how members of the GOP in key posts respond to intense, countervailing political pressures. While many Republicans still believe Trump really won the state in 2020, the party is not a monolith. In May, an all-Republican county commission in rural Oceana County voted by a 4–3 margin to oust a canvasser who disrupted a board meeting and refused to certify the 2021 municipal elections. In June, the Oversight Committee of the Michigan state Senate, chaired by Republican Ed McBroom, released a report finding “no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud in Michigan’s prosecution of the 2020 election.”
In July, McBroom won praise from Tony Daunt, who was appointed to the state canvassing board after Republicans declined to renominate Van Langevelde. A seasoned GOP operative, Daunt was until recently the executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative advocacy group backed by the billionaire DeVos family. “Thank you … for having the courage to stand up to the malignancy that is Donald Trump,” Daunt said after McBroom presented his findings to state canvassers. “He is leading a lot of good people astray. He’s filling their heads with lies.”
Daunt apparently sees his role the way canvassers from both parties always have, up until 2020. Your party nominates you because you’re a fierce partisan—but once on the board, you’re obliged to operate in a bipartisan manner, recognizing real election results even when your side loses.
That said, the Trump supporters clawing their way into positions of public authority don’t need to win a lawsuit “proving” fraud, or to delay certification of election results indefinitely. In a presidential year, if rogue canvassers can create enough legal and procedural fog to postpone certification for even a few weeks, Michigan might not have a final vote count by the “safe harbor” deadline in early December. State election results submitted after that date can be challenged in Congress.
In such a scenario, GOP majorities in the state Legislature could—in theory—declare a “failed election” and substitute their own slate of electors for those chosen by voters. This should be considered a preposterous idea, but one of its most ardent proponents, GOP state Rep. Matt Maddock, is now running to be speaker of the Michigan House. Maddock is by no means a fringe candidate; his wife, Meshawn Maddock, is co-chair of the state Republican Party.
Michele Voorheis, meanwhile, no longer has to endure the vicious personal abuse that has come from doing the gnarly but necessary work of precinct-level democracy. Instead, she’s thinking about an RV trip with her husband, heading toward a beach on Key Largo. Her quality of life will likely improve. The quality of Michigan elections? Not so much.