Meet party insiders charged with certifying Michigan's election results

Melissa Nann Burke and Beth LeBlanc | The Detroit News | 10:59 pm EST November 18, 2020

The state board responsible for certifying the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election is made up of party insiders — two Democrats and two Republicans — set to convene Monday to ensure the accuracy of the vote count in all 83 Michigan counties. 

The state canvassers usually operate in relative obscurity, with their election certification duties a matter of routine.

But President Donald Trump has falsely claimed victory in Michigan, where he lost to Democrat Joe Biden 51% to 48% or by more than154,000 votes, according to unofficial returns. But the Republican incumbent continues to pursue lawsuits and make unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud.  

Since the state board is split between four partisans, a board deadlocked 2-2 is a possibility, which would likely kick the matter into the state courts. It's happened to the Board of State Canvassers in past years when certifying ballot proposal petitions but not when considering the certification of a statewide election, experts say.

"In normal times, nobody would worry about this, right? It's just supposed to be routine," said Richard Primus, a constitutional law expert at the University of Michigan Law School. 

"If two of them go to the crazy place, we're in uncharted territory. We would much prefer that not happen."

Democratic members of the Michigan Board of Canvassers Jeannette Bradshaw and Julie Matuzak, right.
Dale G. Young / The Detroit News

It's what happened for a few hours Tuesday night in Wayne County when the board of canvassers there deadlocked 2-2 on certification. The board only reversed course three hours later when the two Republican members voted to certify the election on the condition that the Secretary of State's office conduct a "comprehensive audit" of mismatched Detroit counting board results.

At least one member of the Board of State Canvassers is not making any promises about his vote next week.

Republican Norm Shinkle, the longest-serving member on the current board, said Wednesday he couldn’t commit to certifying the Nov. 3 results until he was actually presented with them. But Shinkle said he anticipated he would make a motion for some sort of audit of the Nov. 3 election. 

Even should the audit expose some issues, Shinkle said, “I don’t think anybody would argue that would add up to an amount that would change the results.” 

The board's two Democrats, Chairwoman Jeannette Bradshaw and Julie Matuzak, said they have confidence that their GOP counterparts will do their part and certify the election. Just as they voted for certification in 2016 when Trump won Michigan.

"In my experience, we’ve never failed to certify an election. And I have confidence that my Republican colleagues will do their job," said Matuzak, who has served on the board for 10 years. 

Bradshaw added: "It all comes down to the vote numbers. It doesn’t matter for me whether I like the person who won or not. That's not what my role is. It's not a subjective thing."

The state board's role

The Board of State Canvassers, which dates to 1850, is enshrined in the state Constitution. After the counties completed their canvassing Tuesday, the board's role is to add their results together and certify the election. Until that happens, Michigan's results are unofficial. 

As a legal matter, there is no basis in law not to certify the results at this point, said professor Sam Bagenstos, who specializes in constitutional and civil rights litigation at the University of Michigan Law School. 

"There’s a pretty clear duty that the canvassers have to certify the results. The law does not provide for them to engage in any extraneous inquiries," said Bagenstos, who has advised state Democrats on election law.  

"The law is very clear and straightforward. That’s why forever we’ve had these bipartisan boards, and it almost never comes up that it’s an issue. Because this is not a matter of discretion. It's not something where the canvassers get what they want to do. They look at the results provided by the counties, and if they are in the proper form, they certify them."

Only after the election is certified may audits or recounts be performed under state law.

Republican Colleen Pero was tasked with her share of contentious decisions while on the Board of State Canvassers, including the 2016 partial presidential recount and an audit of the 2013 Detroit mayoral primary. In the 2013 case, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers declined to certify results that put write-in mayoral candidate Mike Duggan ahead of Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon.

In several controversial cases, the court system stood ready to step in if the bipartisan board was unable to get past a deadlock.

“It’s expected that these folks will be political, and it’s not unheard of that partisan people end up in a deadlock when you have even numbers,” said Pero, who served on the state board from 2012-18. “The remedy is, of course, that people go to the courts.”

Such a case would likely end up before the Michigan Supreme Court, legal experts say. 

The high court has a 4-3 majority of Republican-nominated justices through the end of the year. In January, a 4-3 majority of Democratic-nominated justices will control the court. 

"My sense is there are enough reasonable people on the Supreme Court of Michigan, elected as candidates of both major political parties, that if this goes to them, they would order the regular process, and the certification of the election in favor of Joe Biden," Primus said.

The next question would be whether the U.S. Supreme Court would review the case. The justices usually will not review questions of state law, but some people argue questions related to the appointment of presidential electors are a federal issue, Primus said.

"That’s a controversial position. It might be wrong, but there is some support for it in the federal judiciary, and my guess is Trump’s lawyers would want to take their chance on that in the hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court would want to side with them," Primus said.

"I don’t know any ground upon which the U.S. Supreme Court would side with them in that event, but this is uncharted territory."

If the Trump campaign were to file for a recount, that also falls under the purview of the Board of State Canvassers.

Jeannette Bradshaw 

Bradshaw, an Ortonville Democrat, was appointed to the board in 2013 and currently serves as chair. Her day job is as the recording secretary for Local 58 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. 

A Biden supporter, Bradshaw was among a handful of Michigan moms who recorded videos for digital ads the Biden campaign ran on Facebook. In hers, Bradshaw blasted Trump's mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. She also did a Biden campaign roundtable discussion with Illinois U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, she said.

Jeannette Bradshaw chairs the Board of State Canvassers.
Courtesy of Jeanette Bradshaw

There are no restrictions on the state canvassers' partisan activity, except that "we can’t run for statewide office," she said. 

Bradshaw is concerned that Trump's rhetoric claiming voter fraud without evidence and charging Democrats with "stealing" the election will harm the nation's election process going forward. 

There are calls on both sides of the aisle for more training of election workers, but most irregularities in local elections come down to human error in election administration and not fraud, she said. 

"It makes people question everything now. In a system that has fail stops, that has transparency — you know, even your voting machine was certified in the public space," said Bradshaw, noting that's another part of the board's duties.

"What people are really saying with this is that your local clerks, their staff, the thousands of Michiganders who have stepped up to work on Election Day for years and years — my neighbor across the street — they’re saying those individuals are not honest. That’s the part that’s disheartening to me."

She urged voters with questions about the election system to call their local clerk's office. 

Julie Matuzak 

Matuzak, a Clinton Township Democrat, has served on the Board of State Canvassers for 10 years. She is retired as the political director for American Federation of Teachers and was just narrowly elected to the Macomb County Board of Commissioners. 

She also has been frustrated by Trump's claims about fraud, when she sees no evidence to back it up. 

"We can account for every numbered ballot in this entire state, so I'm very frustrated by the president and, frankly, more frustrated by members of the Republican Party, who know better — should know better — but are playing along for whatever reason," she said. 

Julie Matuzak, a Democrat from Macomb County, has served on the Board of State Canvassers for a decade.
Brian Sevald

"There is no widespread fraud. Local election workers take great pride in what they do and see themselves really contributing to their community and this country. We've got to show them some respect."

Matuzak has been particularly peeved with the Trump campaign's fixation on Wayne County and Detroit, the nation's largest Black-majority city, which she finds to be "frankly, racist."

"There are going to be problems that pop up all over the state, and no one is storming the Kent County counting locations. No one is storming the Alcona County in northern Michigan," Matuzak said. "Let’s be serious. There are going to be little problems that pop up everywhere."

She anticipated that there will be some discrepancies in the reports that her board reviews from the counties, but that generally, the state canvassers see "very small" human errors and clerical errors. 

"We make a big deal of that because we're striving for perfection. We want every vote to count. We want the whole process to work flawlessly. And so we make a big deal if, you know, somehow there's a problem with four ballots. It probably doesn't affect the election, but it's important to us," Matuzak said.

"We will ask questions, and that'll be part of the reports. There will be an explanation. That's all public information."

Norm Shinkle

Longtime canvasser Shinkle of Williamston was appointed to the Board of State Canvassers in 2008.

An attorney by trade, he has a history in Republican politics as a former state senator, chairman and chief judge of the Michigan Tax Tribunal, chairman of the Michigan 8th Congressional Republican District Committee and adviser to the conservative, DeVos-backed Michigan Freedom Fund. 

Shinkle sang the national anthem at Trump’s Lansing rally last month, and his wife was among more than 100 GOP poll challengers who submitted an affidavit in Trump's lawsuit seeking a halt to Wayne County canvassing. 

"You can’t fault someone’s spouse for what they do," Bradshaw said of Shinkle.

Shinkle's time on the Board of State canvassers has been marked by controversial decisions over an emergency manager law repeal, Detroit mayoral primary results, gubernatorial recall petitions and spades of petitions seeking to alter Michigan laws.

Norm Shinkle is also a consultant for the Michigan Freedom Fund.
Dale G. Young / Detroit News file photo

Shinkle said next week he anticipates making a motion for some kind of audit of the Nov. 3 election. 

“We’ve got to dig deeper on the core issues here,” Shinkle said. “We have to have an audit. The question is: How do you define that?

“I’m very much inclined to find out what happened for the sake of future elections in Michigan.”

GOP challengers at the TCF Center in Detroit, including Shinkle's wife, Mary, have filed allegations of ballot irregularities and barriers to challengers that Shinkle said he believes deserve answers. 

“Some of the challengers were overboard,” Shinkle said. “And Republicans — both parties really — need to do a better job training their people.”

Still, he said, “there’s no one side on this,” noting that some poll workers cheered as challengers were pulled from the counting room. 

The allegations, which have been refuted by the city, cast a pall over Michigan that can only be dispersed through transparency, he said. 

“To the extent I can help improve that, I plan to do so,” Shinkle said. “One of the people I will be talking to before I vote on anything is (Detroit Clerk) Janice Winfrey.”

Aaron Van Langevelde

Republican attorney and board Vice Chairman Aaron Van Langevelde of Charlotte works for the Michigan House Republican Policy Office as a policy adviser and deputy legal counsel.

Van Langevelde, a former assistant prosecutor in Branch County, was appointed to the state canvassers board by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2018. Van Langevelde did not return calls for comment this week.

But he shared his dismay — as did other state canvassers — in August when about 72% of the absentee voting precincts in Detroit's primary election had ballot totals that didn't match the number of ballots reported in poll books. Van Langevelde said the situation was "very troubling" and "unacceptable."

"A repeat performance is going to seriously undermine the public's confidence in the general election," he said.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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