What I saw at the Michigan recount
On December 7, 2016, I volunteered as an observer with Recount Michigan 2016. I showed up at 9:00am sharp in the heart of Detroit, in heavily democratic Wayne County, Michigan.
It was a bloodbath.
I did not count a single vote during my entire first four-hour shift.
Trump’s legal team was there in force, circling the room like sharks. They were challenging everything, gumming up the works and disqualifying whole precincts. I was only aware of a single Green Party attorney plus one law student in my (large) room. Many challenges had one or more Trump lawyers speaking with election officials, and no legal advocate present for the other side; they were simply outnumbered and outgunned.
Every recount table had 1–2 Trump observers present, each one holding written scripts to challenge every single precinct, regardless of the facts.
(Note: I am not a lawyer, the next two paragraphs are my understanding based on what I observed on site.)
When a precinct is challenged, everything is recorded in writing by the election officials present. If the challenge is obviously true, the precinct in question is deemed un-recountable, right there. The civic employees write a report, return everything to the box, seal the box, and move on to the next precinct, then the process of recording and unsealing a box begins again.
But, even if the challenge is clearly contrived, it still has to be recorded, on the spot. The civic employees must fill out a form, in longhand, and write up a report―also in longhand — before they can get back to work counting ballots.
I sat at my table for a full hour before our first box was even unsealed.
Around the time our first box was finally getting unsealed, an exasperated election official shouted an announcement to the room. It was a large room and there were many people in it — he would have needed to shout anyway — but his frustration was clear. He had the air of a normally calm civic bureaucrat trying to do his job and get the votes counted on time, but who had been pushed to the breaking point by Trump’s lawyers and their delay tactics.
The election official announced that Trump’s head lawyer had just filed a blanket challenge in Lansing. So, (here, I’m paraphrasing from memory) “All precincts have already been challenged. You don’t have to read your scripts anymore, we’re not writing down the challenges. If you still want to read them, go ahead and read them.” (Shouting louder) “But we’re not writing them down any more. If you tell us to write them down,” (He raised his arms) “We’re not gonna do it!”
Trump observers kept reading their challenges, and civic employees kept counting ballots, trying to concentrate on the count. A miscount of one in a thousand could (and did!) disqualify entire precincts from the recount. Thousands of votes and hours of counting were disqualified if one ballot in a thousand was missed amid the chaos in the room.
Why did Detroit and Wayne County — the bluest county in Michigan — have so many Republican lawyers present?
Where did all these Republican lawyers come from? They looked like they walked in straight out of a Brooks Brothers catalog, but they were not there to have a good time.
I can only speak from my own experience, but I wonder — were there similar swarms of Republican lawyers in the red counties, challenging everything?