What Happened in Michigan Is a Warning

A red elephant and a blue donkey engaged in tugh-of-war with the Michigan state seal in the background.

An obscure government body in Michigan has been in the news quite a bit recently for refusing to place two measures on the ballot for November. But this might not have been the first time you’ve heard of the Board of State Canvassers — the board was also a focal point of former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election when he tried to stop Michigan’s results from being certified. What happened in 2020 led directly to the board’s refusal to place the measures on the ballot this year. Coupled together, these instances serve as a perfect example of how Republicans can meddle in the democratic process — and a warning sign of what’s to come.

In 2020, Republican canvassers in Michigan almost blocked the certification of the election.

After every election, the Michigan Board of State Canvassers meets in what is supposed to be little more than a formality. The board, consisting of two Democrats and two Republicans appointed by the governor, merely compiles and certifies the election results that have already been confirmed by county election officials. This body has no power to audit election results or conduct investigations — the board has a purely “ministerial” duty according to legal experts. So when the board met in November to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election, it should have been a boring affair, with all four members voting in favor — just like they had done in 2016 when the margin was much narrower.

But, as we saw in many states, what should have happened after the election is not what actually happened. After Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of fraud were — to put it mildly — laughed out of court after court, he and his supporters turned their attention to the board. The four canvassers were inundated with calls and emails from Trump supporters urging them to vote against certifying the 2020 presidential results in Michigan. Amid this crucible, one of the Republican canvassers announced he was leaning towards voting against certification, citing debunked conspiracy theories about voting in Detroit. Meanwhile, the second Republican canvasser did not publicly state any position on the controversy, leading to speculation about how he would ultimately vote — and what would happen if the board deadlocked.

With much more attention and anticipation than normal, the board finally met on Nov. 23, 2020. As expected, both Democratic canvassers voted to certify the results. The Republican canvasser who previously expressed doubt about the election results chose to abstain. But the other Republican, a lawyer for the state legislative Republicans named Aaron Van Langevelde, voted with the Democrats to certify the results. In his statement, he argued the board had no other choice than to comply with the law and certify the election.

Van Langevelde’s decision was a major blow to Trump’s hopes of overturning the election. With the board’s certification, Michigan’s 16 electoral college votes went to President Joe Biden and the U.S. General Services Administration began the formal presidential transition process after weeks of delay. While, in the end, the process worked as it was supposed to, the drama of Nov. 23 showed the Republican party that it could weaponize previously administrative tasks to subvert election results that it didn’t like — something the board’s current Republican canvassers tried to achieve last month.

This year, they tried to prevent Michiganders from voting on two important ballot measures.

In August, the Board of State Canvassers again had a typically uncontroversial task — voting to approve ballot measures for the November ballot. This year, the state Bureau of Elections, after auditing the petitions and determining organizers had submitted the requisite number of signatures, recommended that two ballot measures — a package of pro-voting reforms and a measure creating a constitutional right to reproductive freedom — be placed on the ballot.

Rather than follow the recommendation of the Bureau of Elections, as is customary, the board’s two current Republican canvassers voted against adding the two measures to the ballot. They didn’t dispute that supporters had submitted enough signatures — instead, the canvassers pointed to dubious rationales to keep the measures off the ballot, arguing that the reproductive freedom measure had some errors with spacing and the voting rights measure didn’t adequately specify how it would change the state constitution. As a result, the board deadlocked at 2-2, keeping both off the ballot.

The two current Republican canvassers — both new to the board since the aftermath of 2020 — found a way to prevent the people of Michigan from voting on policies they opposed by weaponizing their ministerial role. Notably, the canvassers are not election deniers — one harshly criticized Trump’s attempts to overturn the election and the other agreed there was no fraud. This just demonstrates how far Republicans will go to meddle in the democratic process.

The Michigan Supreme Court ended up breaking the stalemate.

Thankfully, the Michigan Supreme Court stepped in to save the day, ordering both ballot measures to be added to the November ballot and dismissing the Republican canvassers’ arguments. As a result, Michiganders will have the opportunity to enshrine the right to choose into their constitution and enact important voting reforms that the Republican Legislature has refused to consider.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack admonished the Republican canvassers for failing to do their duty, writing that “[a]bsent an insufficient number of signatures or a petition form that doesn’t comply with unambiguous statutory requirements, the board lacks the authority to refuse to certify a petition.” She also lamented the state of democracy in Michigan as a consequence of the canvassers actions:

[T]wo members of the Board of State Canvassers with the power to do so would keep the petition from the voters for what they purport to be a technical violation of the statute. They would disenfranchise millions of Michiganders not because they believe the many thousands of Michiganders who signed the proposal were confused by it, but because they think they have identified a technicality that allows them to do so, a game of gotcha gone very bad. What a sad marker of the times.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack

Michigan is an ominous augury of what’s to come.

Even though the Republican canvassers didn’t succeed in subverting the will of Michigan voters this time, the fact that they even tried is a dark omen for the 2024 elections when Trump could be on the ballot once again. If a Democrat wins in 2024, the Republican canvassers could vote against certification, forcing the board into a stalemate. Since the Michigan Supreme Court is one of the courts where partisan control could flip this year, we can’t count on it to step in and force the board to certify the results. If that happens, the consequences are unclear — but they could be dire. 

But what happened is not just a warning for future Michigan elections. The Great Lake State isn’t the only state where the election machinery relies on political partisans doing their duty without regard to partisan outcomes. Throughout the country, our democracy depends on politicians at all levels of government complying with their legal duties to certify election results — even results they don’t like. As the case of Michigan shows, we can no longer assume that they will.