Conspiracy theorists flood the election process, set sights on monitoring ballot drop boxes
Pro-Trump protesters at Detroit’s TCF Center, Nov. 2020 | Ken Coleman photo

In the 2020 presidential election, there were upwards of 150 poll workers in Detroit.

Then came the onslaught of right-wing conspiracy theories and lies that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump – and the baseless claim that heavily Democratic Detroit had played a starring role.

In the wake of these lies, more than 400 Republican poll workers from throughout the state descended upon Michigan’s largest city, which is majority Black, for the August primary.

While those poll workers – all of whom had to go through training by Detroit city officials – didn’t say outright that they believed the 2020 election was stolen, they asked questions in trainings that “they may deem legitimizes their position for the election being stolen,” said Daniel Baxter, Detroit’s former elections director who is now the chief operating officer for the city’s absentee ballot counting process.

“One of the good things is many of the poll workers in the primary election, many of these allegations that were made in 2020, the workers from the Republican Party who were expecting to see all that stuff, they didn’t see it,” Baxter said. “I don’t know if that made them disenchanted or relieved.”

Election administrators across the state and country are similarly reporting that Republicans are rushing to become part of and monitor an election process that GOP leaders continue to falsely label as fraudulent and which the majority of Republican voters believes resulted in the 2020 election being stolen from Trump (even though President Joe Biden won a decisive victory in both the Electoral College and popular vote).

For example, the “Michigan Election Protection Team,” a collection of right-wing groups organized by the Michigan Republican Party, worked to recruit thousands of “election inspectors” for the Aug. 2 primary and Nov. 8 election and is holding ongoing poll challenger trainings – efforts that mirror the national GOP’s poll worker and challenger recruitment initiatives.

And it’s not just polls that Republicans are determined to swarm on Election Day. As with Republicans nationwide, they’ve increasingly set their sights on ballot drop boxes in the weeks leading up to November’s election. The Macomb Republican Party, which was recently embroiled in ugly internal disputes over the control of the party, days ago called for Republicans to become “drop box monitors.”

Ballot drop boxes are secure and locked containers where people can place their votes. Last week, the Legislature struck a bipartisan election reform deal that beefs up drop box security, in addition to other measures like giving election workers two days to pre-process absentee ballots.

These boxes became increasingly prevalent beginning in the 2020 election in an effort to allow people to vote without having to stand close to others during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, they’ve become a lightning rod for baseless Republican conspiracy theories focused, again, on fraud during the 2020 election.

GOP Secretary of State nominee Kristina Karamo, who is running on Nov. 8 against Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to be the state’s chief elections officer, repeatedly makes false claims about the 2020 election and about so-called “ballot mules” stuffing votes for Biden into drop boxes.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon has said she supports banning ballot drop boxes entirely – something Michigan Republican lawmakers have attempted to do through a series of voter restriction legislation that has been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Dixon’s opponent.

GOP Attorney General nominee Matthew DePerno, meanwhile, is the subject of a petition for a special prosecutor into whether third parties gained unauthorized access to, and then tampered with, election equipment and data after the 2020 election. DePerno will face Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel in November’s election.

These efforts, from recruiting a sea of 2020 election denying poll workers and challengers to monitoring drop boxes, are concerning political experts and election workers who worry they could lead to voter intimidation or other illegal activity emanating from the right-wing individuals focused on undermining and attacking democracy.

“We have been alerted that the Republican Party has actively been trying to recruit spies to be employed by the local clerk but report to the Republican Party directly – sneak in cell phones, do all sorts of mole type behaviors,” Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said. “As a result, I have encouraged local clerks to remember they’re the employer of the precinct worker. If a worker is violating their oath of office or is being insubordinate, they may be relieved of their duties.”

The Michigan GOP did not respond to a request for comment.

Prior to August’s primary, Wayne County GOP leaders, including former state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, encouraged poll workers and monitors to ignore election rules restricting cell phone use at polling places and vote-counting centers.

Last week, a Michigan election worker was charged with two felonies for allegedly inserting a personal flash drive into an electronic poll book in Kent County’s Gaines Township. James Donald Holkeboer was an election inspector at the Gaines Township 8th Precinct, according to Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons’ office. The GOP had nominated Holkeboer to be an alternate precinct delegate in April.

Lyons, who is a Republican former House member and the GOP’s 2018 lieutenant governor nominee, called the incident “extremely egregious and incredibly alarming. Not only is it a violation of Michigan law, but it is a violation of public trust and of the oath all election workers are required to take.”

Byrum, a Democrat who also served in the House, said Holkeboer’s arrest shows the system works.

“What happened in Kent County should be a warning: You will be caught and you will be prosecuted and suffer the consequences of your misguided actions,” Byrum said. “… What these people are being told to do have real world consequences.”

Byrum added that Republican leaders’ calls for individuals to “monitor” drop boxes could lead to “individuals lingering and intimidating people who are opting to safely and security place their ballot in a drop box.”

Aghogho Edevbie, the Michigan state director for All Voting is Local Action, said that while “everyone has a right to monitor these boxes” because they’re in public spaces, “there’s a fine line between monitoring and intimidation.”

“Unfortunately, what we’ve been seeing from the beginning when drop boxes became more prevalent in Michigan is that there’s a group of folks very much in the minority who believe drop boxes should not be used,” said Edevbie, whose organization is a national group that works to remove discriminatory barriers to voting and partnered with the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice on an explanatory paper focusing on what election inspectors are permitted to do in Michigan.

“That’s unfortunate because they give voters of all different economic stripes the ability to vote absentee. It expands access to the ballot, and that’s something we should all be for.”

Rachel Orey, the associate director for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said drop boxes are “essential” to democracy, but have been maligned following the 2020 election.

“Since the 2020 election they’ve been misconstrued in popular media and in the halls of state legislatures,” Orey said. “…With the drop box, you’re submitting [a ballot] into a secure locked container that has more video surveillance than a post box. They’re collected by bipartisan teams and taken to an election office to be counted.

“Research has proven drop boxes increase voter turnout and participation,” Orey continued. “If you do away with them entirely, it risks dampening voter turnout.”

In addition to video surveillance of drop boxes, there are a long list of security measures that election administrators must meet when it comes to drop boxes. Edevbie said the additional security measures passed by state lawmakers this week were “fine.”

Baxter noted that each ballot drop box in Detroit is monitored 24 hours a day by surveillance cameras. Should there be any issues regarding voter intimidation at a drop box, election officials would be immediately able to connect with city police, Baxter said.

Ken Kollman, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, emphasized a response from law enforcement is crucial should there be attempts to intimidate voters.

“Efforts to monitor voting boxes could potentially become efforts to intimidate people wanting to vote,” Kollman said. “Let’s hope that doesn’t happen and if it does that appropriate authorities can uphold laws against voter intimidation and hold offenders accountable.”

Despite this litany of issues, 92% of local government leaders reported being “very confident” in their jurisdiction’s ability to administer an accurate election in November, up from 87% in 2020, according to a recently published poll from the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy. In that poll, 85% of local officials said they are “very” confident that their jurisdiction’s final vote results, voting machines and voting rolls will not be compromised, a significant increase over the 63% who said the same in 2020.

However, according to that same poll, concerns about potential disturbances at polling places have risen, with 27% of local leaders from the state’s largest jurisdictions – places with more than 30,000 residents – reporting there could be such issues. Nine percent statewide said the same. About 19% of local officials said intentional disinformation about voting is a problem, with 29% of those in the largest jurisdictions saying the same.

“If there will be disturbances, it’s pretty clear it’s coming from the Trumpist side, and those would most likely be targeted at our urban places,” said Tom Ivacko, the executive director for the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

To boost confidence in the election process and hopefully deter disturbances at drop boxes, polling places and vote counting centers, election administrators said they’ve been working hard to connect with citizens and be clear and transparent about how the election process works.

In the city of Lansing, for example, there was, like Detroit, an increase in the number of Republicans who applied to be poll workers for the August primary. A city of Lansing clerk’s office employee said there were more than 60 new poll workers for the primary. The clerk’s office sent a survey to them after the primary and asked if they felt the election process was secure. All but two responded positively, the employee said.

Orey, of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project, noted that “for much of the last several decades, election officials have attempted to use serving as a poll worker or observer as a way to bring skeptical voters into the process and educate them on the security mechanisms in place.”

That transparency, Ivacko said, is crucial.

“There are people on a spectrum of how much they trust elections; for those who understand how elections are run and how committed our election officials are to running elections with integrity, I think the more people who can see that the better,” he said.

Still, the relentless right-wing disinformation campaign around elections and GOP officials’ push to have election deniers involved in elections is not only leaving election administrators disheartened but facing an increase in concerns over their own safety.

Byrum, for example, noted that while she has not received any threats of violence, she knows “many of my colleagues have.

“Part of the intent behind these threats and harassment that election administrators receive are because conspiracy pushers want to get rid of professional, state-certified election professionals so they can be replaced with other conspiracy believers,” Byrum said. “… A lot of our civil servants are being demonized: our nurses, our teachers, our members of the press, our election administrators – people who dedicate their lives to serving the public.”

Baxter noted that when he was looking at a website for municipal elections positions in 2013, there were about 35 vacancies. After the 2020 presidential election, “there were more than 200 vacancies throughout the United States,” he said.

No Detroit election workers have quit over threats of violence, Baxter said, but it’s still a widespread concern.

“There are a lot of us saying, ‘It’s not worth my life, it’s not worth the threats, it’s not worth the harassment, I quit,’” he said. “That’s where we find ourselves.”

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.