LANSING—In a rare weekend meeting, amid President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud, Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature on Saturday used unprecedented subpoena power to demand expansive records from the state’s Nov. 3 election.
The action capped a whirlwind election week in Michigan and occurred at almost the exact moment The Associated Press declared Democrat Joe Biden the winner of the national race. Biden won Michigan by nearly 150,000 votes, according to unofficial results, but Trump has falsely claimed he carried the battleground state.
As part of a new inquiry into the election, the GOP’s legislative subpoenas seek state records on absentee ballot applications, postcards and voter registration encouragement letters sent to Michiganders by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who spent months encouraging mail-in voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Democrats called the probe an attempt to undermine confidence in the democratic process, but Republicans argued that additional oversight could actually help boost public confidence in the results and ensure future elections run more smoothly.
“I want to assure all concerned the premise of these hearings is not to overturn the will of the people of this state, and not to overturn right and fair and honest elections,” said Senate Oversight Chair Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan. “The public right now is at a fever pitch of interest, and the opportunity we have to do our jobs, our very legitimate jobs, I don’t think could ever be more intensely needed.”
In interviews with Bridge Michigan, longtime Capitol observers could not recall the Legislature ever using subpoena power of this kind: Not when Flint residents were exposed to toxic water, not when the state’s unemployment insurance agency falsely accused tens of thousands of residents of fraud and not when Trump won the state by just 10,704 votes in 2016.
“I don’t think the Legislature has issued subpoenas on any subject, any issue, that I can think of, certainly not under the current Constitution” adopted in 1963, said Bill Ballenger, who served as a Republican in the state Legislature from 1969-1974 before starting a political newsletter.
“Perhaps before my time, but I can’t remember a time,” said Bob LaBrant, a retired GOP attorney who served as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s legal counsel from 1978 to 2012.
Biden’s unofficial margin in Michigan of 146,119 votes is a “huge” number that Republicans are unlikely to overcome, even if they do invalidate some Democratic votes through legal challenges or other means, LaBrant said.
He noted that House Republicans will return their 58-52 majority to Lansing next term based on outcomes from the very voting system they are now scrutinizing. GOP candidates also won three statewide positions for educational governing boards and protected all seven of the party’s congressional seats.
“If the Democrats were engaged in wholesale voter fraud, they sure did a pretty lousy job,” said LaBrant, a Republican who opposed Trump’s re-election. “I think it’s a scurrilous charge that somehow there was corruption.”
Legislative Republicans did not make any new accusations in Saturday’s hearing, but they echoed concerns over transparency during absentee ballot vote counting at the TCF Center in Detroit, where officials temporarily restricted new poll challengers from entering a room they said was already packed with partisans from both sides.
GOP legislators argued they have a responsibility to probe the various claims and rumors about the Michigan election, many of them perpetuated by Trump and Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel.
House Oversight Chair Matt Hall, R-Marshall, said he has received “hundreds and hundreds” of phone calls and emails from people with questions or complaints about the Michigan election.
“I think part of the healing process is to go through these things, to, you know, debunk things that aren’t true and look into the process to make sure that people of this state can feel comfortable that this was a fair process where legal votes were counted only,” he said.
But Democrats blasted Republicans for holding the hearing at such a charged time. As they met at the Boji Tower in downtown Lansing, Trump supporters held a “stop the steal” rally across the street at the Michigan Capitol, and some circled the building in cars, honking horns.
“This is nothing more than political theater” to “call into question our election,” said Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit.“And based on what? A president who constantly lies… This is crazy. And we should not allow it. None of us.”
Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel said on social media that she was “disgusted” by what she called “sham legislative hearings designed to impugn the integrity of our elections.” But, Nessel added, she looks forward to Michigan election officials and “actual experts schooling this committee on the security of our election process.”
Benson had released a lengthy statement Friday disputing GOP claims and providing explanations for the handful of clerical errors and irregularities that were fixed.
Benson spokesperson Jake Rollow said Saturday “Michigan’s election was conducted fairly, accurately and transparently, and the results reflect the will of Michigan voters,” and noting Benson had publicly announced the absentee ballot applications, reminder postcards and voter registration mailings the Legislature is now seeking information about.
“The Michigan Department of State has provided accurate information throughout to inform voters of their rights and correct the misinformation that seeks to confuse voters and tear down our democracy. We hope such activities will now stop so that our state and nation can begin to heal its divisions and move forward.”