Covering Michigan’s election standoff

November 25, 2020
A voter casts a shadow while walking to a booth to fill out a ballot during absentee early voting at Wayne County Community College in Detroit. David Goldman/AP Photo

Typically, after the first Tuesday in November, exhausted political reporters might expect to catch their breath. This year—as a sitting president and his allies used a flurry of lawsuits, recounts, and accusatory rhetoric to try to overturn the voting results—Election Day was only the beginning, especially for journalists in swing states like Michigan.

“It’s been busier after the election than even before it,” Jonathan Oosting, a reporter at Bridge Michigan, a nonprofit news site, said. “Covering campaigns this year was different anyway, with covid; there was not as much in-person stuff.… And then afterwards, it’s been just nonstop.”

For a November 11 story, Oosting reported on the four partisan officials tasked with certifying Michigan’s election results—usually a straightforward procedure. Both of the Democratic officials told Oosting that they expected as much this year, despite legal challenges and misleading claims from the Trump campaign. However, one Republican official declined to comment, while the other, Norm Shinkle, would make “no promises,” as the headline to Oosting’s story put it. 

Later that week, two Republican members of the Board of Canvassers for Wayne County, home of Detroit, voted against certifying the county’s results—a decision that prompted personal thank-you calls from President Trump. (One of the canvassers said she’d certify every community except Detroit, which is home to about half of Michigan’s Black population.) Trump then invited two top Republican state legislators to the White House for a private meeting, leading many to theorize about how a deadlocked board might give way to the GOP-controlled legislature trying to award Michigan’s electoral votes to the guy who lost the state by 154,188 ballots. Oosting asked Republican representatives if they’d award Electoral College votes to the statewide winner, if it came to that, and got some revealing answers:

National reporters and analysts quickly caught up; Shinkle, the Republican official, briefly trended on Twitter. More than thirty thousand people tuned in on Monday for the meeting of Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers. In the end, the board certified the vote, with one member abstaining after reading a lengthy statement.

Much of the best coverage of Michigan’s certification standoff and the dynamics that shaped it came from those who navigated the intricacies of local politics without losing sight of the big story: a president and his supporters trying to change the results of an election by explicitly casting people in majority-Black communities as cheaters in order to throw out their votes.

“It’s like a switch flipped on Election Day,” said Stephen Henderson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who hosts a call-in show on WDET, Detroit’s public radio station, and serves as project executive for BridgeDetroit, a community-based newsroom that is kin to the statewide organization. “All the euphemisms for lying or being dishonest used to describe the president’s behavior for the last four years…got tossed in the garbage, and now people are very boldly calling out what’s happening for what it is.”

At Bridge Michigan, flipping the switch meant changing the newsroom’s approach to fact-checking. Initially, Oosting said, fact-checking appeared in the body of a story, but “we ultimately started coming to the conclusion that people are not finding it that way—or reading that far in the story.” Instead, Bridge journalists started doing stand-alone pieces, tackling each claim individually for more comprehensive vetting and giving the article a separate, straightforward headline in order to reach readers who might search online for conspiracy theories. On the first Monday after the election, a piece by Oosting and colleague Madeline Halpert—“Human error, Dominion voting equipment fuel false fraud claims in Michigan”—explained how the Trump campaign seized on a quickly corrected clerical error in a conservative rural county to heighten fears about the integrity of the election results. Other pieces reported on the names the president and his supporters claimed were “dead voters,” presenting miniature profiles of voters who were “very much alive,” despite being used as false evidence of fraud in viral posts and legal filings.

Clara Hendrickson, a Report for America corps member, works a fact-checking and politics beat for the Detroit Free Press—an explanatory-journalism effort that seemed to pick up steam after Election Day. Hendrickson broke down a viral video full of false claims about poll workers trained to steal an election, for example, and detailed why the oft-repeated allegation of smuggled ballots is simply not true. (The image used for this claim is a wagon carrying a news photographer’s equipment.) 

Hendrickson said she wasn’t surprised that Wayne County became a national story. “Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were the key states who helped deliver the [2016] election to Trump, and low turnout in Detroit was one of the major factors in Hillary Clinton’s loss,” she said. Campaign season—during which, among other incidents, Donald Trump Jr. made an unsubstantiated claim about dead voters participating in Michigan’s August primary—was a preview of the partisan scrutiny and rumors that settled in after November 3.

Henderson, the WDET host, praised most coverage of Michigan’s certification standoff as “quite accurate.” Still, he added, stories too often lacked important racial context. “There’s a reason they [Trump Republicans] picked Wayne County,” he said. “There’s only one reason they picked Wayne County to make this accusation, to stage the protests they did.” 

Other Michigan journalists urged their colleagues to take note of this as it happened. “The counties that flipped for Biden are Saginaw, Leelenau and Kent,” wrote Outlier Media founder Sarah Alvarez in a November 6 tweet. “Yet Pro-Trump factions are in Black Detroit.… Cover this very thoughtfully.” Kat Stafford, a Detroit-based AP reporter who covers race and ethnicity, wrote during Wayne County’s certification drama that journalists couldn’t chronicle such events in the absence of context about “the dynamics of race/racism and the various forms of voter suppression that have long existed in America.” 

“I don’t think of myself as a naive or rube-ish person,” Henderson said. “I’ve known my whole life this is a pretty racist country, and there are political interests that thrive off bigotry.” Yet the transparency and breadth of this strategy in recent weeks still felt revelatory. “There is nothing else there. They lost the election in Michigan. And their answer, their only answer, is ‘Black people cheated.’ ” 

This idea readily sells, despite the fact that most of American history is quite the reverse. Henderson explored this on his WDET show, connecting the 2020 attack on voting rights with Jim Crow. He featured call-in conversations and guests who offered much-needed context; Chris Thomas, the longtime former director of elections in Michigan who came out of retirement to assist with vote counting in Detroit, spoke to how routine certifications are and how Detroit, which is chronically under-resourced, received state support to run a much smoother election this month. 

At BridgeDetroit, Henderson described the approach as one that centers residents, who are often lost amid coverage that sees the city only as a political battleground. “These are deep wounds to inflict on Detroit and Detroiters, and they are not casual wounds,” he said. Olivia Lewis, a BridgeDetroit reporter, produced a series of profiles of those residents caught in the partisan backlash; several focused on poll workers at the downtown convention center on Election Day. One headline: “A mob tried to stop Detroit’s vote count. She made sure democracy prevailed.” 

In Michigan, as elsewhere, untold stories shadow coverage of the political transition, such as it is. Had the results of this election been acknowledged from the start—had false insinuations of cheating not been elevated by so many high-powered people, obliging journalists to chase down their claims and spend more than eight hours monitoring the livestream of an ordinarily obscure state canvassing board—what might their reporting have unveiled? 

For all the attacks on the city, Trump got about five thousand more votes from Detroit in 2020 than in 2016. President-elect Joe Biden got less support than Hillary Clinton did. That’s a story BridgeDetroit intends to explore more fully, Henderson said. Likewise the unsuccessful candidacy of Republican Senate aspirant John James, a Black veteran and Detroit native who did better statewide than the president did.

There are other important stories to explore as well, including the “soft” disenfranchisement that comes from having an under-resourced clerk’s office and how this difficult political season affects our ability to govern together, not least on a new independent redistricting commission that will draw the lines of political power in Michigan for the next decade. 

But all that’s still to come.

RECENTLY: When procedure becomes the story

Disclosure: The author has contributed freelance stories to BridgeDetroit, Bridge Michigan, and the Detroit Free Press. She has not directly worked with any of the individuals interviewed.

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.