Wayne County officials acknowledge there was little vetting or background checks for members of an obscure board that has thrown Michigan’s presidential election into confusion.
Two Republicans on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers late Wednesday signed affidavits attempting to rescind their votes to certify the county’s results, which provided Democrat Joe Biden with his margin of victory in Michigan. Biden carried Wayne County by 333,000 votes in a state he won by 150,000.
The GOP members, Monica Palmer of Grosse Pointe Woods and William Hartmann of Wyandotte, received their four-year appointments on the recommendation of the Republican Party, said Alicia Bell, chair of the county’s board of commissioners.
“We generally rely on the parties who recommend them to us to vet them,” Bell said on Wednesday.
“We’ll probably need to take a closer look at all the dozens of appointments [we make to various boards],” she added.
“Who would have projected this?”
“Usually it’s just an honor to go and represent the party,... It’s not consequential. We don’t have any money. No contracts. We aren’t entrusted in anything except the most powerful thing of all: the vote.” — Jonathan Kinloch, vice chairman of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers
The controversy sheds light on the numerous typically obscure boards and commissions that compose the backbone of local governments and are often staffed with activists and citizens with little scrutiny.
The four-member canvassers, which consist of two Republicans and two Democrats, are appointed in all 83 of Michigan’s counties. They typically play an administrative role in the election process and are paid a pittance: less than $100 this year in Wayne County.
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Hartmann told Bridge Michigan his nomination process involved a quick vetting and brief conversation with Republican Party officials. Fellow canvasser Jonathan Kinloch said political parties typically nominate one candidate and they are approved by county commissions without much thought.
“Usually, it’s a bunch of old people and retirees, party activists,” the Democrat from Detroit said.
“Generally, it’s not something that becomes a mess. Usually it’s just an honor to go and represent the party... It’s not consequential. We don’t have any money. No contracts. We aren’t entrusted in anything except the most powerful thing of all: the vote.”
Hartmann and Palmer were appointed directly by Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett after other members resigned mid-term. Wayne County’s commissioners are now drafting resolutions to urge resignations of both.
Palmer told the Detroit Free Press that Trump phoned her Tuesday after she and Hartmann changed their votes and agreed to certify Wayne County’s votes as long as state officials conducted an audit of them. They had initially refused to do so, resulting in a 2-2 deadlock.
Now, the two say they were misled and pressured and want to rescind their votes, an action that Trump attorney Rudy Guiliani said Thursday nullifies the certification. Several other experts said the action is meaningless since the results were already certified.
Here’s a look at the four members in the spotlight, how they are selected and their responsibilities.
Canvassers’ primary role is to bring precincts into balance – to ensure the number of ballots cast matches the number of voters signed into the poll books. Three of four members must vote to certify elections. The chair of the board is rotated between the parties every two years.
Discrepancies between the two are not out of the ordinary. There can be simple explanations, such as voters getting tired of long lines and leaving, or paper jams that cause ballots to be read twice. In most instances, the ballot counts were off by less than four votes.
It's the canvassers’ job to reconcile these discrepancies by providing explanations whenever possible.
For 14 days, members of the board work to bring precincts into balance by checking with clerks for supplemental documents that could explain extra or missing ballots, and sometimes, by bringing in ballot containers to hand count them. In Michigan, balancing precincts is especially important since state law bars recounts in precincts that are unbalanced.
Election law experts said canvassers have no right to investigate allegations of fraud. Their sole responsibility is to examine the documents that are presented to them during the canvass and certify election results.
Failure to do so could result in their removal and potential legal ramifications, election law experts said.
Chair Monica Palmer
Republican, 40, of Grosse Pointe Woods
Palmer has been involved in Republican politics in several communities for 10 years and is founder and president of Taxpayers for Grosse Pointe Schools, a position that led a citizen to file a complaint with the Wayne County Ethics Commission. The complaint alleged that Palmer’s involvement with an organization that promoted candidates in a school board election is a conflict of interest.
Palmer works as director of operations for National Fleet Services, a Detroit-based vehicle manufacturing company.
She joined the board in 2017, succeeding former Sen. Bruce Patterson, R-Canton, who resigned. Her term expires next year.
A self-described “data-junkie,” Palmer said the role on the Board of Canvassers interested her after she volunteered as an election challenger for a recount in a 2017 election in Grosse Pointe Woods.
“There were checks and balances in witnessing that recount that restored my faith in the election process,” she said.
Palmer also observed the absentee ballot counting process this year at the TCF Center in Detroit, a role that also has raised conflict-of-interest concerns.
In a Wednesday statement, she claimed the dispute over certification could “have been avoided” if Democrats and elections officials listened to her concerns about out-of-balanced precincts.
“But they, the Democrats, were too busy trying to belittle me,” she said.
“There was not mob rule, but there was a lot of pressure to certify,” Palmer added. “It was not easy to sit there and listen to all of the threats on the zoom call and on social media.”
She is expected to host a news conference Friday at her attorney’s office in Southfield.
Vice chair Jonathan C. Kinloch
Democrat, 47, of Detroit
Kinloch is a Detroit native and ally of Mayor Mike Duggan and is chair of the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority and Democratic Party 13th Congressional District. He also serves on the city’s water board and has served on its school board and library board.
Kinloch, who is a music producer who managed the 1990s R&B group Hi-Five, has been on the canvassers board since 2016. He worked for several months as an appointee for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before leaving to become political director of Service Employees International Union.
Kinloch is credited with helping persuade Republicans during Tuesday’s meeting to change their minds and certify the election, a compromise that Palmer and Hartmann now say was duplicitous.
Some political pundits have claimed Trump is resorting to a “Hail Mary” to overturn Michigan’s election results. Kinloch has another description.
“It’s not a Hail Mary,” he said. “It’s just Hell.”
Member William Hartmann
Republican, 62 of Wyandotte
Hartmann said he was approached by former county canvassers chair Krista Haroutunian, who is now a judge in Redford Township, for a spot on the board because he is “even mannered” and the “opposite of a radical.”
He replaced Mayra Rodriguez, who resigned to run for Michigan House of Representatives in 2020.
Hartmann, who works for a marketing and advertising company, All in One Campaign, said he’s been involved with the Republican Party since high school. He is currently the communications director for the 12th Congressional District Republicans.
Hartmann noted he’s quite conservative and not a “good old boy Republican.”
On social media, Hartmann has shared posts from the president declaring mail-in ballots are “ripe for fraud.” In a Facebook post on Nov. 7, Hartmann cast doubt on Democrat Joe Biden’s victory, suggesting the win was not set in stone until results were certified.
“I'm reading the news on how great things are now that Biden and Harris are in as declared by the [mainstream media],” he said. “What will happen if it doesn't happen once the official results are tallied?”
“I wouldn't sell the farm yet.”
Friday before the Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting, Hartmann told Bridge Michigan it would take something “really grievous” to prevent him from certifying results, such as “a violation to the State or U.S. Constitution.”
Member Allen Wilson
Democrat, 63, of Romulus
Wilson is a former assistant director of the United Auto Workers union based in Detroit. He is a Detroit native who attended Wayne State University, and also serves as a delegate to the state control committee in the 13th district.
Wilson did not return Bridge Michigan’s request for comment.
His Facebook page shows he is regularly involved with UAW and the local Democratic party, often posting pictures from events. He has also shown support for prominent national figures in the party like Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer.
“Onward to a majority Democrat led Senate. Let's do this!” he wrote in a post on Nov. 9 about the two upcoming runoff senate races in Georgia, with an attached picture of himself with Schumer from 2019.
After Republican members originally voted not to certify results, Wilson said he was “appalled to be sitting here today.”
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.