You’d be hard-pressed to find a more loyal Republican than Michelle Voorheis.
An evangelical Christian in small-town Michigan, she’s been a party organizer since the 1980s. She’s campaigned against abortion and same-sex marriage, and in favour of state recognition of religious schools. At the 2004 Republican National Convention, she had a box seat next to Dick Cheney.
But in the days after the 2020 election, she found herself on the opposite side of a yawning divide from Donald Trump.
As a member of the Genesee County board of canvassers, a committee tasked with checking the accuracy of the local ballot count, Ms. Voorheis voted in favour of certifying the election results, helping Joe Biden capture this key swing state. On Facebook, she pushed back against Mr. Trump’s false claims the election had been rigged.
The leaders of the county’s Republican Party would have none of it. They lectured Ms. Voorheis on all manner of outlandish conspiracy theory, she says, including that voting machines had been manipulated by the Venezuelan government and fake ballots shipped in from China.
“People started hating on me. They were telling me, ‘You need to stop talking, you need to shut up,’” Ms. Voorheis, 65, recounted in her office in Clio, a town of 2,500 where she and her husband run a property-management company. “They were just superangry.”
The following year, the local party chapter did not renominate Ms. Voorheis for the board of canvassers. She has no doubt about the reason. “Their leadership is all election deniers,” she said.
Across Michigan, these once-obscure election committees are now a front in the fight by Mr. Trump’s acolytes to take control of the country’s voting systems.
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Each of the 84 boards of canvassers – one in each county, and one statewide – is made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, nominated by local party leaders. It takes three votes for a board to approve an election result, raising fears that newly-appointed election deniers on the boards could block certification as part of a bid to overturn a future vote – particularly if Mr. Trump runs again in 2024.
“They’re in a position to create a lot of mischief,” said Mark Brewer, an election lawyer and former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. “It would be saying to the voters of Michigan, ‘We don’t care how you vote, we’re going to do what we want.’”
In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, Republican leaders replaced board of canvassers member Monica Palmer, who voted to certify the 2020 vote, with Robert Boyd, who told the Detroit Free Press that Michigan’s 2020 election results were “inaccurate” and he would have voted against approving them.
Just north of the city in suburban Macomb County, Republicans installed Nancy Tiseo on the board last year. In the weeks after the 2020 election, Ms. Tiseo urged Mr. Trump via Twitter to “suspend” the electoral college “so military tribunals can 1st be set up to properly investigate & resolve the cyber warfare” she said had rigged the vote.
Marvin Rubingh, a canvasser in rural Antrim County, said he didn’t accept that Mr. Biden was legitimately elected. “It’s obvious there’s been some problems in the election. We don’t know who won,” Mr. Rubingh, who was appointed a year ago, said in an interview. In Kalamazoo County, canvasser Tony Lorentz told the website Politifact that he didn’t know whether Mr. Biden had won Michigan, and wouldn’t promise to sign off on future elections.
At the state board, Aaron Van Langevelde cast the decisive vote to certify in 2020. A lawyer and Republican political staffer at the state legislature, he said he immediately faced such an avalanche of threats that he, his wife and their three young children had to leave home and stay elsewhere.
Mr. Van Langevelde pointed out that, ironically, even as Mr. Trump demanded the election be overturned, he never requested a recount in Michigan, the most obvious legal avenue to contest a result.
“The idea that a board of canvassers – or any election official – can block certification or overturn the will of the voters is contrary to the ideals of our country and seriously undermines the rule of law,” Mr. Van Langevelde, 42, wrote in an e-mail. “Someone needed to take a stand and stop the nonsense, and I am proud to have been there to get the job done.”
As in the case of Ms. Voorheis, the party did not renominate him.
The board of canvassers takeovers are part of a broader battle by Trump supporters to give themselves authority over elections.
All four Republican nominees for statewide office in Michigan – governor, lieutenant-governor, secretary of state and attorney-general – are election deniers. So are some candidates for Congress and state legislature. In 2020, Mr. Trump unsuccessfully pressed Republican-controlled legislatures in states he lost to replace Mr. Biden’s electoral-college members with ones who would vote for Mr. Trump.
Diane Saber, a candidate for the Michigan state house, protested outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. She told The Globe that state legislators could overturn a future election result if they believe there was fraud. “They have the power to do it,” she said as she campaigned on a street corner in Roseville, a working-class Detroit suburb.
She also gives credence to a conspiracy theory that the Capitol riot by Mr. Trump’s supporters was actually a set-up. “You see … buses coming, being escorted in with antifa, Black Lives Matter. I know the FBI’s in question now,” she said.
If the conspiracists try to block certification of a future election, Mr. Brewer, the Democratic lawyer, said he already has a plan to file a legal challenge. He contends that the boards of canvassers’ job is narrowly focused on resolving discrepancies in the vote tally and nothing more. “The case law here is pretty clear: they have a duty to certify, they don’t have the ability or the right not to,” he said.
Remaining Republican canvassers who reject the conspiracy theories, meanwhile, are hoping the example they set can prevent a rerun of 2020′s acrimony.
“I really, truly believe that Trump lost in 2020. Is there fraud in the election process? I don’t believe there is,” said Richard Houskamp, who was appointed to the state board last year. “The louder those voices are for challenging and questioning elections and the process, the more dangerous it is for democracy.”