Washtenaw's Election Audit
It wasn't the federal review some wanted. But it did show how hard it is to commit fraud..
Published in January, 2021
Hours before his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying his defeat, President Trump claimed that he had actually won in a "landslide." Even after the riot, seven senators and 138 representatives voted to reject the electoral votes of Pennsylvania. Rep. Tim Walberg, who represents much of Washtenaw County, had said he would do so because "Poll challengers have raised valid concerns about election integrity across our Nation that brings into question the results of the 2020 election and puts faith in future elections in jeopardy."
Have valid concerns been raised? The president and his supporters certainly think so: a December Fox News poll found that 77 percent of Trump voters believed that he had actually won re-election. Joining many of his GOP colleagues, Walberg called for the "Emergency Electoral Commission to perform an emergency audit of the election results in the 10 days before the inauguration."
But there's no such thing as a federal "audit" of election results--elections are conducted by local governments with oversight by the states. That's why Trump and his supporters had to file sixty-two different legal challenges to the results.
None produced any evidence to support the presidents' claim that he'd won a "sacred landslide victory." But they did highlight the intricate checks and balances built into the electoral process--the latest of which was a "risk-limiting audit" that Washtenaw County conducted and livestreamed on January 14.
That audit was purely technical, a procedural review designed to reduce the possibility for errors in future elections. For the purposes of validating November's outcome, the review that mattered was the canvass and certification process, which took place within days of the election.
Each county's bipartisan Board of Canvassers is charged with verifying that votes were properly cast and counted. They do this by reviewing the pollbooks, which document the ballots issued, cast, rejected and spoiled in each a voting precinct. The pollbooks include the name of every voter
who was issued a ballot at the polls and those from whom an absent voter ballot was received, along with the serial number of the ballot that was issued to the voter.
Canvassers review the statements of votes, which document the final vote totals obtained in a voting precinct or an absent voter counting board precinct. They open ballot containers to ensure that all ballots were removed and check for mathematical errors by election inspectors. If they suspect violations of election law, they notify law enforcement agencies.
Once they are satisfied that the vote was accurately counted, they certify the election results, releasing the official vote totals, the names of the candidates elected, and the outcome of any questions on the ballot. Washtenaw County's canvassers certified the local results unanimously--and even congratulated city and township clerks on their "excellent job in managing all the elements of the November 2020 general election ... despite political passions running high and a pandemic."
In the case of presidential elections, the Michigan Board of State Canvassers receives canvass records from each county before certifying the final vote tallies they have reported. Despite pressure from the president and his allies to reject the county totals, the state board approved the counties' canvasses by a vote of 3-0.
The post-election procedural audits come much later. January's risk-limiting audit was designed to confirm the accuracy of election results, using statistical methods to detect any anomalies. Ballots were randomly selected for audit using a mathematical formula and hand-tallied--a total of more than 18,000 ballots statewide.
Risk limiting audits confirm the accuracy of ballot tabulation machines by comparing the results from the hand count of the randomly selected paper ballots to the results from the machines. Michigan's statewide audit is expected to confirm within a statistical level of certainty the results of the statewide presidential contest.
"Risk limiting audits are a new thing," says Ed Golembiewski, Washtenaw County Director of Elections. "Here in Washtenaw we participated in an early pilot in 2019 and then there was a pilot statewide audit after the March presidential election primary. We were undertaking this risk limiting audit regardless of independent calls for election audits."
For maximum transparency and understanding, the Washtenaw County Clerk's office admitted both in-person and online observers to the audit at WISD's Teaching & Learning Center. When asked the day after the riot how it compared to the review called for by Walberg and his colleagues, Golembiewski emailed, "Unfortunately I do not know what Representative Walberg or others intended when they called for an Emergency Electoral Commission to perform an emergency audit of the election results. There has been no such commission in existence since 1876 and, should one have been created, its authority and the implications for county clerks offices in Michigan is not clear to me. Regardless, the matter seems settled given that Congress formally affirmed the votes of the Electoral College this morning without forming the commission."
[Originally published in January, 2021.]
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