The Republicans—House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey—were not interested. Spooked by Trump’s continued assault on mail voting, and aware that their own members in the Legislature were distrustful of the new “no-excuse-absentee” rules, Chatfield and Shirkey weren’t inclined to do the process any favors. Only in the late stages of the race, when Republican state senator (and former secretary of state) Ruth Johnson suggested a meager concession—allowing 10 hours of absentee ballot processing before Election Day—did the GOP throw a bone to election workers.
It’s helpful to understand the party’s logic. Not only did they want to avoid the perception of aiding a system the president was attacking as illegitimate and not only were they skeptical of the Democrats’ concerns of a drawn-out count. But many Republicans didn’t believe the election would be terribly close to begin with. A summer’s worth of polling, conducted for them privately at the local and statewide level, indicated that Trump stood little chance of carrying Michigan a second time. The common expectation was that the president would lose comfortably, by at least 4 or 5 points, a margin that would render any controversy about absentee voting meaningless.
That thinking changed abruptly around 10 p.m. on election night. As the president surged to a durable lead in Florida—defying expectations by winning large numbers of Hispanics and holding his own among absentee voters—Michigan Republicans were gripped by equal parts euphoria and panic. It was clear Trump was running far more competitively than they’d anticipated; he was on track to win Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, three states that tally their ballots quickly, meaning the spotlight would abruptly shift to the critical, slow-counting battlegrounds of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Everyone here knew this had been a possibility, but it wasn’t until midnight that the urgency of the situation crashed over Republicans. Trump had built a lead of nearly 300,000 votes on the strength of same-day ballots that were disproportionately favorable to him. Now, with the eyes of the nation—and of the president—fixed on their state, Michigan Republicans scrambled to protect that lead. Laura Cox, chair of the state party, began dialing prominent lawmakers, attorneys and activists, urging them to get down to the TCF Center, the main hub of absentee vote counting in Detroit. She was met with some confusion; there were already plenty of Republicans there, as scheduled, working their shifts as poll challengers. It didn’t matter, Cox told them. It was time to flood the zone.
“This was all so predictable,” said Josh Venable, who ran Election Day operations for the Michigan GOP during five different cycles. “Detroit has been the boogeyman for Republicans since before I was born. It’s always been the white suburbs vs. Detroit, the white west side of the state vs. Detroit. There’s always this rallying cry from Republicans—‘We win everywhere else, but lose Wayne County’—that creates paranoia. I still remember hearing, back on my first campaign in 2002, that Wayne County always releases its votes last so that Detroit can see how many votes Democrats need to win the state. That’s what a lot of Republicans here believe.”
As things picked up at the TCF Center, with more and more white Republicans filing into the complex to supervise the activity of mostly Black poll workers, Chris Thomas noticed a shift in the environment. Having been brought out of retirement to help supervise the counting in Detroit—a decision met with cheers from Republicans and Democrats alike—Thomas had been “thrilled” with the professionalism he’d witnessed during Monday’s pre-processing session and Tuesday’s vote tabulating. Now, in the early morning hours of Wednesday, things were going sideways. Groups of Republican poll challengers were clustering around individual counting tables in violation of the rules. People were raising objections—such as to the transferring of military absentees onto ballots that could be read by machines, a standard practice—that betrayed a lack of preparation.
“Reading these affidavits afterward from these Republican poll challengers, I was just amazed at how misunderstood the election process was to them,” Thomas chuckled. “The things they said were going on—it’s like ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what was going on. That’s what’s supposed to happen.’” (The Trump team’s much celebrated lawsuit against Detroit was recently withdrawn after being pummeled in local courtrooms; his campaign has to date won one case and lost 35.)
At one point, around 3:30 in the morning, Thomas supervised the receiving of Detroit’s final large batch of absentee ballots. They arrived in a passenger van. Thomas confirmed the numbers he’d verified over the phone: 45 trays, each tray holding roughly 300 ballots, for a total of between 13,000 and 14,000 ballots. Not long after, Charlie Spies, an attorney for the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican John James, approached Thomas inside the TCF Center. He wanted to know about the 38,000 absentee ballots that had just materialized. Thomas told him there were not 38,000 ballots; that at most it might have been close to 15,000.
“I was told the number was 38,000,” Spies replied.
By five o’clock on Wednesday morning, it was apparent Trump’s lead would not hold.
His cushion over Biden had been whittled down to 70,000 votes. There remained hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots to be counted in the large, Democratic strongholds of Detroit, Lansing and Flint. The math was simply not workable for the president. Just before 9:30 a.m., Biden overtook Trump in the tally of Michigan’s votes—and suddenly, a switch flipped on the right.
After 24 hours of letting the democratic process work, Republicans around the country—watching Trump’s second term slipping through their fingers—began crying foul and screaming conspiracy. No state cornered the hysteria market quite like Michigan.
First it was breathless accusations about Antrim County, a rural Republican redoubt in northwestern Michigan with a total turnout of 16,044 voters, where the unofficial returns showed Biden leading Trump by 3,000 votes. (A human error caused the candidates’ totals to be transposed, the county clerk said, and it was quickly corrected, though this did nothing to stop context-less social media posts about the mistake from going viral, or to slow the spread of rumors about Governor Whitmer buying off local officials because she owned a vacation home in Antrim County.)
Then it was Stu Sandler, a longtime Michigan GOP operative and top adviser to James’ U.S. Senate campaign, moving preemptively to declare victory and accuse Democrats of trying to steal the seat. “John James has won this race. The ballots are counted. Stop making up numbers, stalling the process and cheating the system,” Sandler tweeted. (James, who was clinging to a small lead that would soon disappear, promptly retweeted this sinister claim. Sandler later deleted it and told me he apologized for tweeting “in the middle of an intense moment”—but stuck to his claims of widespread “irregularities” that damaged his candidate.)
The true insanity was saved for Detroit. By early afternoon on Wednesday, hundreds and hundreds of Republicans had descended on the TCF Center, responding to an all-hands-on-deck missive that went out from the state party and was disseminated by local officials. Cox, the party chair, tweeted out a video of her comrades standing outside the locked-up downtown building. “Republican poll challengers blocked from entering the TCF Center in Detroit! This is egregious!” she wrote.
Truly egregious was Cox’s dishonesty. At the time of her tweet, several hundred of her party’s poll challengers, attorneys and representatives were already inside the TCF Center monitoring the count. By law, Republicans were allowed to have 134 challengers in the room, one for each tabulation table. In reality, the GOP had far more than that, according to sworn testimony from nonpartisan poll watchers inside the TCF Center. Because of the overflow, election officials ultimately decided to lock down the complex, starting with the glass-encased canvassing room where the tabulation work was being done. This left dozens and dozens of Republicans trapped behind the glass—in addition to the hundreds of others locked outside with Cox. Some began to bang hard on the inside windows; others began to film workers handling the ballots, a violation of state law. To protect the workers, TCF officials covered some of the windows with cardboard—a decision Thomas said he was not consulted on, but absolutely agreed with.
“The people outside that room were doing exactly what the law says you would eject people for doing—they were disrupting the election,” Thomas said. “Everyone else in the room—the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the ACLU, the nonpartisans—they all still had a full complement of challengers in the room. And the Republicans, by the way, had far more challengers in the room than they were entitled to.”
What made this behavior all the more confounding, Thomas said, is that the election was conducted more transparently than any he’d ever participated in. Each of the 134 tables had monitors placed at the end, “showing every keystroke that was made,” so that challengers could see exactly what was happening. But he came to realize that none of this mattered. Having dealt with Republican poll challengers for decades, Thomas said, it was clear the people who infiltrated TCF on Wednesday were not adequately trained or there for the right reasons.
“Unlike the people who were there Monday and Tuesday, these people Wednesday were totally unprepared. They had no idea how the system worked. They had no idea what they were there for,” Thomas said. “Many of them—not all of them, but many of them—they were on a mission. They clearly came in believing there was mass cheating going on in Detroit and they were on a mission to catch it.”
As conspiracy theories proliferated across the right-wing information universe—Sharpie markers disenfranchising Trump voters in Arizona, a marked Biden/Harris van unloading boxes full of ballots in Nevada, suspicious turnout patterns in Wisconsin—Detroit held a special place in the president’s heart.
When Trump addressed the nation from the White House on Thursday night, insisting the election had been “stolen” from him, he returned time and again to alleged misconduct in Michigan’s biggest city. Detroit, he smirked, “I wouldn’t say has the best reputation for election integrity.” He said the city “had hours of unexplained delay” in counting ballots, and when the late batches arrived, “nobody knew where they came from.” He alleged that Republicans had been “denied access to observe any counting in Detroit” and that the windows had been covered because “they didn’t want anybody seeing the counting.”
All of this was a lie. Republicans here—from Ronna Romney McDaniel to Laura Cox to federal and local lawmakers—knew it was a lie. But they didn’t lift a finger in protest as the president disparaged Michigan and subverted America’s democratic norms. Why?
In the days following Trump’s shameful address to the nation, two realities became inescapable to Michigan’s GOP elite. First, there was zero evidence to substantiate widespread voter fraud. Second, they could not afford to admit it publicly.
McDaniel was a case in point. Born into Michigan royalty—granddaughter of the beloved former governor, George Romney, and niece of former presidential nominee Mitt Romney—she knows the state’s politics as well as anyone. Working for her uncle’s campaign here, and then as a national committeewoman and state party chair, McDaniel earned respect for her canny, studied approach. She spun and exaggerated and played the game, but she was generally viewed as being above board.
That changed after Trump’s 2016 victory. Tapped by the president-elect to take over the Republican National Committee—on the not-so-subtle condition that she remove “Romney” from her professional name—McDaniel morphed into an archetype of the Trump-era GOP sycophant. There was no lie too outlandish to parrot, no behavior too unbecoming to justify, no abuse of power too flagrant to enable. Longtime friends worried that McDaniel wasn’t merely humiliating herself publicly; she seemed to be changing in private. She was no longer coolly detached from the passions of politics. If anything, she was turning into a true MAGA believer.
There was some relief, then, when in recent weeks McDaniel told multiple confidants that she doubted there was any scalable voter fraud in Michigan. Nevertheless, McDaniel told friends and fellow Republicans that she needed to stay the course with Trump and his legal team. This wasn’t about indulging him, she said, but rather about demonstrating a willingness to fight—even when the fight couldn’t be won.
If this sounds illogical, McDaniel’s thinking is actually quite linear. The RNC will vote in January on the position of chair. She is anxious to keep her job. It’s bad enough that despite an enormous investment of time and resources in Michigan, McDaniel was unable to deliver her home state for the president. If that might prove survivable, what would end McDaniel’s bid instantaneously is abandoning the flailing president in the final, desperate moments of his reelection campaign. No matter how obvious the outcome—to McDaniel, to the 168 members of the RNC, maybe even to Trump himself—any indication of surrender would be unforgivable.
This is why McDaniel has sanctioned her employees, beginning with top spokesperson Liz Harrington, to spread countless demonstrable falsehoods in the weeks since Election Day. It’s why the RNC, on McDaniel’s watch, tweeted out a video clip of disgraced lawyer Sidney Powell claiming Trump “won in a landslide” (when he lost by more than 6 million votes nationally) and alleging a global conspiracy to rig the election against him. It’s why McDaniel felt comfortable throwing under the bus a highly respected local Republican clerk in her own backyard, the Detroit suburb of Oakland County, for a human error that was rectified with transparency from start to finish. (The clerk, Tina Barton, called McDaniel’s insinuations of fraud “categorically false.”)
Honesty and decency have not been hallmarks of Republicanism during Trump’s presidency. They certainly are not priorities now. With Trump entering the anguished twilight of his presidency, all that appears to matter for someone like McDaniel—or Cox, the state party chair, who faces an upcoming election of her own—is unconditional fidelity to the president.
“The unfortunate reality within the party today is that Trump retains a hold that is forcing party leaders to continue down the path of executing his fantasy of overturning the outcome—at their own expense,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a Michigan-based GOP strategist who once worked as a vendor for McDaniel, and whose family goes back generations with hers. “Frankly, continuing to humor him merely excuses his role in this. The election wasn’t stolen, he blew it. Up until the final two weeks, he seemingly did everything possible to lose. Given how close it was, there is no one to blame but Trump.”
Roe added, “But if they want a future within the party, it is required of them to demonstrate continued fealty. Principled conservatives who respect the rule of law and speak out suddenly find themselves outcasts in a party that is no longer about conservativism but Trumpism. Just ask once-conservative heroes like Jeff Flake, Justin Amash and Mark Sanford.”
This same principle applies to Chatfield and Shirkey, the state legislative leaders who were summoned to Washington last week for a meeting with Trump. Under normal circumstances, nobody would begrudge anyone a meeting with the president. But the circumstances surrounding the Michigan GOP leadership’s secret huddle with Trump were anything but normal.
Just days earlier, a meeting of the Wayne County canvassing board had devolved into pandemonium after the two GOP members initially refused to certify the county’s results. There were valid concerns about some inconsistencies in the balancing of Detroit’s poll books; and yet, those inconsistencies were minimal relative to the 2016 election, when Trump won by a margin 15 times smaller—and when the board voted unanimously to certify the result. Monica Palmer, one of the GOP canvassers, caused an uproar when she offered to certify the rest of Wayne County—precincts like Livonia—without certifying Detroit. (Livonia, which is 95 percent white, had more poll-book irregularities than Detroit, which is 80 percent Black.)
Tweeting out siren emojis, Jenna Ellis, the attorney for Trump’s campaign, announced: “BREAKING: This evening, the county board of canvassers in Wayne County, MI refused to certify the election results. If the state board follows suit, the Republican state legislator will select the electors. Huge win for @realDonaldTrump.”
This proved wrong on two counts. First, the Wayne board—after a heated period of comments from the public—reversed course the same night and voted unanimously to certify the results after Democrats agreed to an audit of the county’s numerical inconsistencies. Second, the notion that legislators would under any circumstance be free to send their own partisans to the Electoral College had no basis in fact. Under Michigan statute, the only electors eligible to represent Michigan are those who will vote for the winner of the popular vote. There is no discretion for anyone—the governor, leaders of the legislature, canvassers at the county or state level—to do anything but follow the law.