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Michigan lawmakers hear lots of theories, no proof, in election fraud probe

LANSING — Chris Thomas watched Tuesday's state Senate Oversight Committee hearing from his home, incredulous as Republican lawmakers failed to question claims from dozens of GOP activists who served as poll challengers last month during Detroit’s absentee ballot count. 

"They clearly haven't read my affidavit," the former Michigan elections director who served as a senior adviser in Detroit told Bridge Michigan, referencing his sworn statement from Nov. 11 that refuted many of the claims. 

"I just find it incredible that they would take on this topic and do absolutely no homework on the side that might say these people are not accurate."

Detroit election officials had offered to testify remotely, Thomas said, but sat out after Committee Chair Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, decided to only allow written or in-person testimony despite a COVID-19 surge that has infected at least six state lawmakers. 

"They said they weren't taking Zoom testimony today, and I have no intention of traveling to the COVID-infested Capitol," Thomas told Bridge.

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GOP activists turned out in droves, however. Dozens of protesters gathered outside the Senate hearing Tuesday morning chanting “Rudy, Rudy, Rudy” for Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, who is set to testify before a House committee Wednesday. Trump continues to falsely claim he won Michigan and other battleground states. 

At times, the crowd grew so loud McBroom said their “disorder” might force him to adjourn the meeting. 

Many drove hours to the Capitol in a snowstorm to air their grievances about the absentee counting process at the TCF Center in Detroit, a Democratic stronghold and majority Black city. During the daylong meeting, several read affidavits included in lawsuits, including a complaint the Trump campaign voluntarily withdrew two weeks ago. 

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kenny, a Republican appointee, has called similar allegations from GOP challengers “incorrect and not credible” and ruled that many didn’t understand counting processes because they skipped training. 

“There was something that was going on at that [Detroit] Department of Elections, and it’s clearly something that’s very illegal,” said Mellissa Carone, who was at the TCF Center as a contract worker for Dominion Voting Systems. 

Carone provided no evidence to substantiate her claims, but state Sen. Michael McDonald, R-Macomb Township, called her testimony “unbelievably compelling.” He asked multiple Republican witnesses why the Justice Department was not acting on their allegations. 

U.S. Attorney General William Barr provided an answer in a Tuesday interview with the Associated Press: The Justice Department has not uncovered evidence of widespread voter fraud that would change the outcome of the election. 

Trump continues to make unsubstantiated claims of a “rigged” election in battleground states like Michigan, where he officially lost to Democrat Joe Biden by 154,188 votes. The president appeared to be following Tuesday’s legislative hearing in Lansing, tweeting several video clips of witness testimony shortly and claiming “We won Michigan by a lot!”

During the hearing, challengers’ allegations ranged from debunked conspiracy theories about late-night ballot dumps for Biden and dead people voting to complaints about a lack of access to viewing the counting process and an environment of hostility for conservative poll challengers. 

Carone, the contract worker for Dominion, alleged she saw election workers feed batches of 50 ballots through voting machines to count them multiple times.

It's "absurd" to think that could have happened without detection, Thomas, the former state elections director, told Bridge. He noted that would have created major discrepancies between ballot and poll book counts. While several Detroit precincts were "out of balance” by a handful of votes, none were off by hundreds.

A few times, the allegations were too much for McBroom, the Republican committee chair.

He questioned testimony of Patrick Colbeck, a former state senator and 2018 gubernatorial candidate who served as a GOP poll challenger at the TCF Center, who raised allegations of widespread issues with Dominion Voting Systems after an Antrim County clerical error temporarily boosted Democrat Joe Biden’s lead

I'm not saying what you're presenting isn't theoretically possible, but at least in Antrim County, that theory is not evidenced by what occurred," McBroom said. 

"How do we move from what’s possible to what’s actually happened?” he asked. 

Colbeck also repeated his allegation that election equipment at the TCF Center was connected to the internet and could have been manipulated, a claim that courts have already rejected and Thomas dismissed as “conspiracy nonsense.” 

Voting machines and worker stations were connected to a local area network, Thomas told Bridge. To report any totals publicly, the city had to download tallies onto a memory stick, drive that to a separate election office and then upload it to the city and county website. 

“[Colbeck] can peddle that story all he wants, but he is around the bend on that. I just really can't understand it," Thomas said. 

Sen. Peter Lucido, R- Shelby Township, vice-chair of the Oversight Committee said in the end the committee chose to hear the complaints “for policy purposes to ensure the sanctity and security of the voting system.” 

But as GOP activist encouraged the Legislature to ignore the popular vote and pick their own pro-Trump electors for the Electoral College vote on Dec. 14, Lucido noted the committee is composed of lawmakers, not judges. 

“If there are people that have died and are voting in the election, that needs to be brought to [Attorney General Dana Nessel’s] attention, as well as the United States Department of Justice,” Lucido said when one witness claimed more than 200 dead people voted in Detroit.

Nessel, who this month brought criminal charges against a Canton Township man for forging his daughter's signature on an absentee ballot, said her office "investigates any and all credible claims of election/voter fraud." 

She noted there are also two U.S. attorneys offices in Michigan, 83 county prosecutors and more than 500 policy and sheriff departments statewide who would take criminal complaints about alleged fraud.

"Why aren't these witnesses under oath?" Nessel asked.

Democrats and election officials questioned the committee’s decision to allow GOP challengers to testify without presenting any evidence.

“All we’ve got are conjecture and musings,” Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said during the hearing.

Democratic poll challengers have painted a starkly different picture of what happened at the TCF Center counting board, but none of them testified in person, largely because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  

In a recent court affidavit, Democratic challenger and attorney David Jaffe said many Republican and "nonpartisan" challengers appeared to be "intentionally interfering with the work of the elections inspectors so as to delay the count of the ballots and to harass and intimidate election inspectors."

Jaffe estimated there were more than 100 GOP challengers in the Detroit counting room on Nov. 4. 

The Republican and other challengers "repeatedly refused to maintain the mandated distance from the elections inspectors, and instead hovered over them, often questioning them in a hostile and belligerent manner, treating them with shocking disrespect," Jaffe said. 

Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, criticized the committee for continuing to provide a platform for people “to espouse harmful and wrong conspiracy theories about the way majority-Black communities conduct their elections.”

“We have very real problems that this Legislature must be focused on solving,” he said in a statement. “Listening to the unsubstantiated cries of fraud from folks who don’t like the election results should not be on that list.” 

But Republicans who control the state Legislature say they are obligated to investigate claims of fraud. 

Committee Chair Matt Hall, R-Marshall, had initially declined Giuliani’s offer to testify in Lansing, citing “logistical” challenges and instead inviting him to submit written testimony. 

But in a Tuesday statement announcing the new hearing, Hall said he was glad the Legislature and Trump’s team were able “to find time to make this work” on Wednesday.

“This is an opportunity for us to get definitive answers – in-person – about Mr. Giuliani’s claims and evidence, while we work to provide clarity and transparency to people who have taken issue with our state’s election system,” Hall said.

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