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Michigan judge says cheating claims based on ignorance of how elections work

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·6-min read

WASHINGTON — A Michigan judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit alleging cheating during the Nov. 3 election, agreeing with the city of Detroit that most claims were made by individuals who did not understand the vote-counting processes they were observing.

The handful of people who made accusations “did not have a full understanding” of the process for counting mail ballots at the TCF Center in Detroit, wrote Timothy M. Kenny, chief judge for the Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan.

“Sinister, fraudulent motives were ascribed to the process and the city of Detroit,” the judge wrote, but he found that this “interpretation of events is incorrect and not credible.”

The ruling is one of the most decisive rebukes to complaints about the 2020 election made by Trump supporters. The Trump campaign and others supporting his reelection have filed over a dozen lawsuits in several states, with only one minor victory in Pennsylvania, affecting a few thousand ballots. Democrat Joe Biden received about 60,000 more votes than Trump in Pennsylvania.

In contrast to Trump’s declarations that the election was stolen from him, the process playing out in the courts has demonstrated just how little evidence there is for this claim.

Judge Kenny focused on a walk-through held at the TCF Center on Oct. 29, overseen by Christopher Thomas, who served in senior positions in the state’s bureau of elections for 40 years until 2017 and then came back to help Detroit run its election.

“None of the plaintiff challenge affiants attended the session,” Kenny wrote, referring to the individuals who registered complaints. Thomas worked with numerous other challengers to resolve questions, the judge noted.

This judgment aligned with the city’s own response to the suit, which said that “most of the objections raised in the submitted affidavits are grounded in an extraordinary failure to understand how elections function.”

Zinnia Patcas hands out signs as people gather to celebrate Joe Biden's win in the presidential election on November 7, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)
Zinnia Patcas hands out signs as people gather in Detroit on Nov. 7 to celebrate Joe Biden's win in the presidential election. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

As for the one city employee who made allegations of other city workers “coaching” voters in how to vote, Kenny noted that her complaints were “serious” but lacking in specifics. “It asserts behavior with no date, location, frequency, or names of employees,” he wrote.

And the judge said the social media postings of at least one person who made allegations, Patrick Colbeck, undermine “his credibility as a witness.” The city’s legal response included screenshots of some of Colbeck’s postings, which talked about a rigged election weeks before Election Day.

Other people in the suit made references to the QAnon conspiracy theory in their social media posts.

The lawsuit, filed by the Great Lakes Justice Center, claimed that election workers were told not to check signatures on mail ballots, that extra mail ballots were brought in and all counted for Biden, that election workers backdated mail ballots so they could be counted, and that they “used false information to process ballots” — such as adding birthdays in the year 1900 to some voter entries.

The lawsuit also claimed election observers were blocked from watching vote counting at key moments, that votes from ineligible voters were counted and that a handful of city workers “coached” voters to cast ballots for Biden.

The city of Detroit’s filing refuted all these claims.

Election workers at the TCF Center, a Detroit convention center where much of the county’s vote tabulation took place, were instructed not to check mail-ballot signatures during the count, the city said. This was because signature matching had already been done before the ballots arrived at the TCF Center.

“Signature verification was not done at the TCF by counting board inspectors, because it had been completed by the city clerk’s staff,” the city said.

Complaints made in the Great Lakes lawsuit about mail ballots — known in Michigan as absent voter ballots — being backdated, with the implication that they had arrived after Election Day, were also plainly false, the city said. “No ballots received by the Detroit City Clerk after 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, 2020 were even brought to the TCF Center,” the city’s attorneys wrote. “No ballot could have been ‘backdated,’ because no ballot received after 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, 2020 was ever at the TCF Center.”

A worker with the Detroit Department of Elections inspects an absentee ballot at the Central Counting Board in the TCF Center on November 4, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. (Elaine Cromie/Getty Images)
A worker with the Detroit Department of Elections inspects an absentee ballot at the Central Counting Board in the TCF Center on Nov. 4. (Elaine Cromie/Getty Images)

As for the notion that ineligible votes were counted, or that votes were concocted out of thin air and assigned to names of people who didn’t vote, the city said that what Republican observers inside the TCF Center really saw were election workers correcting an error by some election workers at satellite locations, who failed to complete a process that allowed some mail ballots to be counted. It was necessary to enter the date for these ballots to allow them to count, the city said.

“Every single ballot delivered to the TCF Center had already been verified as having been completed by an eligible voter,” the city said.

The charge of extra ballots being brought in was related to the arrival of blank ballots that were sent to TCF for use by election workers. These ballots were given to election workers so they could function as duplicate ballots in case legitimate ballots were damaged and could not be read by voting machines, the filing said.

“Michigan election law does not call for partisan challengers to be present when a ballot is duplicated; instead, when a ballot is duplicated as a result of a ‘false read,’ the duplication is overseen by one Republican and one Democratic inspector coordinating together,” Detroit’s lawyers wrote. “That process was followed, and Plaintiffs do not — and cannot — present any evidence to the contrary.”

The Trump campaign, in a lawsuit of its own filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, claimed there were cases in which “ballot duplication was performed only by Democratic election workers, not bipartisan teams.” This claim has already been dismissed in one lawsuit filed last week by the Trump campaign in Michigan’s Court of Claims.

Observers were allowed at all times, and the city had large computer screens so they could observe each counting station from a safe distance, given concerns about COVID-19, the city said. At one point the room was so full of observers — there were “more than 200” Republican observers there, the city said — that it was “overcrowded,” and for a limited time the city would not allow any additional observers inside until someone from their party left.

And as for the accusation of “false information,” the city said some mail ballots that arrived between Sunday night and Tuesday — all before the close of polls on Tuesday night — needed to have the birth date manually entered due to a software “quirk.”

Election workers entering the birth date for those ballots used Jan. 1, 1900, as a “placeholder date” until the ballot entry could be matched to the voter’s entry in the state voter file. “That birthday will appear in several places in the electronic poll book record for a limited period,” the city said.

Detroit’s lawyers pointed out that Trump received almost three times as many votes in Detroit in the 2020 election than he did four years ago: 12,654, up from 4,972 in 2016.

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