Election deniers are embedded in Michigan canvassing boards — advocates say they're ready

Several Michigan election boards feature Big Lie boosters, but advocates insist vote will be "safe and secure"

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published November 8, 2022 5:45AM (EST)

An election worker holds up a red flag to ask for help while presorting absentee ballots cast in the city of Detroit during the 2022 general election at Huntington Place in Detroit, Michigan on November 6, 2022. (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
An election worker holds up a red flag to ask for help while presorting absentee ballots cast in the city of Detroit during the 2022 general election at Huntington Place in Detroit, Michigan on November 6, 2022. (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Michigan has been a hotbed for election fraud conspiracy theories since 2020, but this year extremist election deniers have filled roles on election canvassing boards that are responsible for tallying votes and certifying the state's elections. 

The bipartisan boards in several different Michigan counties now have GOP canvassers who still question Joe Biden's victory and promote falsehoods about the 2020 election being stolen. 

Katherine Riley, who serves on the Board of Canvassers in Wayne County — which includes the heavily Democratic city of Detroit and has the largest number of Michigan voters — has continued to deny the results of the 2020 election, has repeated election conspiracy narratives and even led training sessions attempting to expose fraud in the last presidential election. 

In a training session held earlier this year for Stand Up Michigan — a conservative grassroots group that grew out of opposition to Michigan's COVID-19 policies — Riley discussed her claims that a physical canvass would expose election fraud and put pressure on the state legislature to act.

"There are still ways for us to really get in there and not allow some of this type of stuff to happen," she told the group in an audio recording obtained by Salon. "But so when we gather this data, we're looking to get Kristina Karamo" — the Republican nominee for Michigan secretary of state — "and have people that will prosecute. So if we don't have that information, what are they going to prosecute, you know?" 

Karamo is a prominent election denier who also signed onto a lawsuit before the Michigan Supreme Court challenging the 2020 election. 

Riley ran the training on behalf of the Election Integrity Force, a nonprofit that "is spearheading the physical canvass of registered, suspicious addresses associated with the Michigan Qualified Voter File," according to its website. The "QVF canvass," as EIF calls it, is "part of the national movement to identify phantom voter addresses and fraudulent votes." 

There is no evidence that "phantom voters" or fraudulent votes occur above a minuscule and irrelevant level in Michigan or any other state.

Since 2020, EIF has raised skepticism about the legitimacy of the presidential election and also attempted to decertify President Biden's win in Michigan by suing the governor and secretary of state, according to the New York Times. EIF also challenged the ballots of about 22,000 people during the August 2022 Michigan primary. 

Riley has continued to support the group's efforts and echoed similar election conspiracy theories. Speaking at Stand Up Michigan events, she has talked about EIF's efforts in exposing election fraud. 

Patrick Colbeck, a former member of the Michigan state Senate, has appeared beside Riley at several such meetings, and has  encouraged poll workers and partisan observers to ignore election rules.

Former state Sen. Patrick Colbeck has suggested that hundreds of thousands of votes were manipulated and called the 2020 election a "coup," saying "we are at war" with those who want to "fundamentally transform America." 

In a Stand Up Michigan meeting in late 2021, Riley explained she was working with Colbeck on canvassing precincts to identify "lost votes" (which refers to votes cast but apparently not recorded) and "ghost votes" (when an individual votes from an address where they do not live). "We're looking to clean up the qualified voter roll because — I can go into this whole thing, but it's a mess," Riley said. 

In another meeting, Riley claimed that the group's limited canvass of 349 voters in Macomb County revealed 39 anomalies (a purported rate of 18%), which Colbeck claimed would extrapolate to hundreds of thousands of votes across Michigan.

"In Wayne County alone, anywhere from 230,000 to 250,000 votes could have been manipulated by illegal votes as identified by these anomalies," Colbeck said. "And these anomalies, just to clarify, they're where it says that somebody voted at this address but that they didn't vote, and they'll attest to that. Or it's a case where there's — you go to the address and it's a vacant lot or it's a dentist's office or something like that. All of these are examples of illegal votes being cast."

He went on to claim that the 2020 election was a "coup," saying "we are at war" with those who want to "fundamentally transform America."

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Riley has described these canvassing efforts as a way to restore Michiganders' confidence in the election system and to ensure free and fair elections. She is not the only GOP canvasser in Michigan supporting these debunked claims regarding the 2020 election. 

In Antrim County, Marvin Rubingh, a member of the canvassing board, has called former President Donald Trump's false claims about the election being stolen "a credible accusation." 

Nancy Tiseo of the Macomb County Board of Canvassers has suggested that "military tribunals" were needed to "properly investigate and resolve the cyber warfare 11-3-20 election issue."

Oakland County canvassing board chair Wilman Cotton and Republican member Bob Copes have both expressed a desire not to certify past election results, apparently because of groundless concerns about voter fraud.

While these canvassing board members would appear to pose a threat to this week's midterm elections, voting advocacy groups say they are prepared.

"We're expecting challenges, but we know that those challenges are illegitimate," said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, a nonpartisan advocacy organization. "We know that they're not going to have merit, and they're not going to break down our systems or the will of the voters,"

Election deniers may try to apply a variety of tactics to disrupt legitimate vote counting, Wang added, but the election system has been tried and tested before and repeatedly proved to be safe and secure.

All Voting Is Local, another group working to protect the freedom to vote at the local level, has also taken steps to ensure that the electoral process is not disrupted by malicious or illegitimate challenges. The group says it has reached out to 100 clerks in counties with the highest population of voters to make them aware of the new ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court, which allows local clerks to continue using poll challenger guidance issued by current Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.

That guidance outlines the rights and duties of election challengers and poll watchers, and also pauses a previous judicial ruling that banned electronics in absentee counting boards.

"That guidance is going to be in place on Election Day, and all the clerks that we have reached out to understand that," said Aghogho Edevbie, director of All Voting Is Local. "They're ready to go. So we feel very confident."

Edevbie recommended that if voters encounter any intimidation or other disruptions on Election Day, they should report any issues at 866-OUR-VOTE, a nonpartisan election protection hotline.

"I just want voters to know that there's a team ready and willing and able to defend their rights, and they should have every confidence to get out there and vote," said Edevbie. "It has been a rough couple of years and we are in unprecedented times, but people should realize that, ultimately, because of the work that we've all done, every single election we've had has been certified and the rightful winners have taken office. I am extremely confident that will happen again this year."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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Election Denial Elections Kristina Karamo Michigan Reporting Voting Rights