A momentary keystroke — an extra zero on unofficial results during a long day — is adding fire to false claims about voter fraud in Michigan one week after the presidential election.
Just north of Lansing in Shiawassee County, Republican Clerk Caroline Wilson says she accidentally boosted Democrat Joe Biden’s unofficial lead from 15,371 to 153,710 — more than twice the number of registered voters in the county — during the early morning of Nov. 4.
“It was a typo,” Wilson told Bridge.
She quickly corrected the error, and GOP President Donald Trump went on to win the county by more than 8,000 votes.
No matter. Since then, the mistake has spread throughout social media and is being cited by Republicans as an example of irregularities that may have denied Trump victory in Michigan, a state he lost by nearly 150,000 votes.
Within hours of the Shiawassee County mistake, Matt Mackowiack, a GOP consultant and chairperson for the Travis County Republican Party in Texas, shared screenshots of a map of election results from Decision Desk HQ, an election data firm, in which it appeared Biden had gained 138,000 votes in the overall Michigan tally, while Trump brought in none.
“An update gives Biden 100% of new votes – 128k +,” Mackowiak wrote in the tweet.
Mackowiak later deleted the original tweet and admitted the Decision Desk data was due to the county typo, which had been fixed.
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The damage was done.
That same morning, on Nov. 4, Trump retweeted a post containing Mackowiak’s original tweet with the caption, “WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT?”
Thousands of people shared the post, and the error was soon featured in headlines on conservative news sites such as Gateway Pundit reading, “Voter Fraud in Michigan – Massive Dump of Over 200,000 Ballots for Biden All the Sudden Appear Overnight.”
The Trump campaign has filed lawsuits over the election in Michigan over the past week, the latest of which alleges misconduct and seeks to block certification of election results in Wayne County.
The suit does not mention the Shiawassee County mistake. But in a Tuesday email from the Trump Election Defense Fund, the Trump campaign’s efforts to raise money for a vote recount and to pay back re-election debts, the campaign referenced the “ballot dump” to solicit donations.
“President Trump was up BIG on Election night and then - almost as if it was magic - THOUSANDS of Biden votes were dumped late at night in Michigan, with absolutely NO overview. Insanity!” the email read.
Several GOP election challengers who spoke to Bridge Michigan cited similar concerns about “Biden ballots” mysteriously appearing in the night, though none of them could provide any evidence to support the claim.
Some challengers conflated false allegations about the 138,000 ballot mistake with another, already debunked conspiracy theory about a man in an unmarked van bringing ballots on a wagon into the TCF Center in the middle of the night, where Detroit election inspectors counted the city’s absentee ballots. The man turned out to be a photographer from WXYZ-TV Detroit, and he was transporting his camera equipment.
“How do they magically find over 100,000 ballots at 4 a.m. and just roll them in?” asked Anne Vanker, 54, of Grosse Pointe, a GOP poll challenger at the TCF Center.
Decision Desk HQ confirmed in a statement on Twitter that the influx of reported votes for Biden was due to the clerical error in Shiawassee County.
“Once we identified the error, we cleared the erroneous data and updated it with the correct data as provided by officials,” the company said in a tweet. “We stand by our data as reflected on https://results.decisiondeskhq.com.”
Wilson, the Shiawassee County clerk, told Bridge Michigan she was shocked by how quickly the false allegations spread.
“The minute [the error] was caught, it was corrected,” she said. “It's amazing to me how fast that even got out when people should have been asleep.”
Other clerks, including Republicans, have acknowledged making momentary mistakes on election night with unofficial results.
In Antrim County, vote tallies for Biden and Trump were transposed before they were corrected, while in Oakland County’s Rochester Hills, an input error momentarily gave Biden 2,000 votes before the issue was fixed.
It’s not unusual to see reporting errors in unofficial results, but they’re quickly caught and fixed, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
The office emphasized that no voters were disenfranchised by the typo and that mistakes did not “affect how ballots were actually counted.”
“You did see some human error with regards to the initial reporting out of results, and that led to some larger conspiracy theories when in actuality it was just human error,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Wednesday during a panel discussion at the Detroit Regional Chamber.
Michigan’s election results become official after bipartisan boards of county and state canvassers review and certify results. The state has until Dec. 8 to settle any disputes and certify election results, a date also known as the “safe harbor deadline.”
If the error hadn’t been caught quickly, Michigan’s trail of paper ballots and post-election audits allow for election officials to examine discrepancies between ballot scanner results and results from hand-marked ballots.
This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.