Elites Signal, the Rank and File React

Trumps words, Michigan GOP Canvassers' actions.

Source: The White House

What harm could it do, some have asked, to tell Trump have his tantrums about the election? Well, when elites send signals, those further down the chain often respond. Not only do we know that some number of American voters do not believe the outcome of the election, we saw in Michigan yesterday how lower-level party operatives can respond to upper-level rantings.

Via the NYT: Michigan Republicans Backtrack After Refusing to Certify Election Results.

Republican members of a key Michigan elections board refused on Tuesday to certify Detroit’s election results in a nakedly partisan effort to hold up Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory over President Trump — only to reverse themselves after an outcry from the city’s voters and state officials.

[…]

At first, the two Republicans on the board said they were voting against certifying the results because many precincts in the county had conflicting figures for the numbers of votes cast and the number of voters they recorded as having participated, even though the disparities mostly involved a small number of ballots. The board deadlocked, with Michigan Democrats denouncing the opposition as a blatantly political intrusion into the process, and criticizing the Republican move as racist.

At one point, a Republican board member, Monica Palmer, had made a motion to “certify the results in the communities other than the city of Detroit” — a move that would effectively disenfranchise one of the nation’s major predominantly Black cities.

The point of contention was that in some precincts the number of voters who signed it was out of balance with the number of votes cast:

At issue in Wayne County were minor discrepancies in which the number of votes cast did not match the number of voters listed as having shown up to vote in various election precincts. This could have stemmed from scenarios like a voter leaving a long line, or an absentee ballot kicked out of a tabulator, among other possibilities. Most involved a handful of votes, and were the types of inconsistencies that are frequently found during canvassing processes without leading to deadlocks like the one that happened on Tuesday.

The reporting on the exact numbers and processes is poor (or, at least not detailed enough for my tastes/preferences). As best I can tell, it would be possible for a precinct to have fewer votes than voters if a person, once signing in, failed to vote or if there was an error with the ballot and provisional ballot was not counted. It is less clear to me how more votes than voters could occur (someone didn’t sign in, but was given a ballot?). Since it seems the numbers are mostly +/- 3 or 4, we simply are not talking about significant fraud.

Here are some additional details from the Detroit Free Press: GOP members reverse course, vote to certify Wayne County election results (emphases mine).

Of Detroit’s 503 Election Day precincts, 66 recorded unexplained discrepancies in the vote totals as did 94 of the city’s 134 absent voter counting boards. The majority of Election Day precincts and absent voter counting boards that were not in “balance,” recorded discrepancies of three votes or less. Ten Election Day precincts and 43 absent voter counting boards recorded discrepancies of four or more votes or more. The discrepancies amount to roughly 367 votes. Detroit’s unofficial election results show roughly 150,000 Detroiters voted in November’s election.

That level of error, in an undertaking of this size that is heavily influenced by human behavior (and in a process run largely by volunteers) strikes me as expected, reassuringly small, and not mathematically relevant. Every election has errors of some sort. The good news is that they tend to be very, very small in the grand scheme of things.

We can also throw in the 2016 general election numbers:

Detroit’s voting problems in 2016 led to a Michigan Bureau of Elections audit of 136 of the city’s most irregular precincts, which found an “an abundance of human errors” but no evidence of “pervasive voter fraud.” There were 216 questionable votes that resulted in a net overvote of 40 ballots — or 40 more ballots cast than voters.

Don’t get me wrong: we would want zero errors, but these are really small numbers. They are nowhere near numbers that would justify disenfranchising a major city.

Here’s what I have ascertained about this story:

  1. A precinct is “out-of-balance” if there is a discrepancy of one ballot. (Although another passage I read suggested that perhaps an error of up to three ballots was allowed).
  2. We aren’t talking about a lot of total votes.
  3. This is a common occurrence.
  4. Elections with similar discrepancies have been certified in the past.
  5. The female Republican canvasser (Palmer) was willing to certify the city in with the second-most out-of-balance precincts in the county (Livonia) while making a motion to not certify Detroit, which had the most out-of-balance precincts. Detroit is 78% Black, while Livonia is 4.4% Black.
  6. The out-of-balance issue is significant to Michigan electoral law because out-of-balance precincts cannot be recounted.

I know there was a great deal of drama about this process yesterday, although as best I can tell the actual possibility of Detroit’s votes not being certified was essentially, as state-level officials still could have done so. The audit that has been ordered appears routine.

However, this is just another example of undercutting trust in the system along with an attempt, however ultimately feeble, to derail vote certification. This would not have happened if Trump had not been shouting about fraud for weeks.

It is also yet another example of Republicans acting in opposition to democratic outcomes.

Meanwhile, via the Detroit Free Press, here’s What’s next now that Wayne County Board of Canvassers certified election results

Now that the county’s board of canvassers has certified the election results, the Board of State Canvassers is tasked with certifying the statewide results. The board is scheduled to meet Nov. 23 to vote on certifying the results.

Recount petitions for the presidential, Senate, U.S. House and state House seats must be filed with the Secretary of State within 48 hours after the board has certified the statewide results.

A change to Michigan’s recount process made after the 2016 presidential election requires candidates to prove they have a reasonable chance to win in order to initiate a recount. Biden won Michigan by a wide margin — more than 146,000 votes — the state’s unofficial results show. Legal experts said they expect the State Board of Canvassers will meet the deadline for certifying the results of the presidential contest, despite pending lawsuits seeking to delay the process.

Also, in a matter not linked to Biden v. Trump, Complaint to unseat Monica Palmer from Wayne Co. Board of Canvassers to be investigated.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Democracy, Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. An Interested Party says:

    At one point, a Republican board member, Monica Palmer, had made a motion to “certify the results in the communities other than the city of Detroit” — a move that would effectively disenfranchise one of the nation’s major predominantly Black cities.

    It’s data points like this which cause shock and surprise as to why ethnic minorities, particularly black people, would ever vote for Trump and/or Republicans…over and over again we’ve seen this argument from some Republicans and from Trump toadies about all of this alleged corruption in “Democrat” cities…of course, these cities all have one glaring thing in common, and it isn’t the political affiliation of most of their citizens…

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  2. Mu Yixiao says:

    As a former English teacher and a current journalist, I’ve got one serious nit-pick with one point of the quoted material.

    The discrepancies amount to roughly 367 votes.

    Votes are counted in whole numbers (integers). 367 is an exact integer. The discrepancy is either 367 or it’s not. There is no “roughly” about it.

    If I could harness the power of my former English teachers spinning in their graves, I could power half of Wisconsin.

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  3. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mu Yixiao:..Out for the night.

    Promises, promises…

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    @Mu Yixiao: If the reported discrepancy is 367, but there is still uncertainty about that number by a few votes, the usage seems acceptable. “Around 370”, or “around 365” would sound more normal. I recall a sci fi short story in which the hero is told a trip is 482 kilometers and when they pass 500 is told that was just an approximate number. He replies 482 is precise enough to be assumed accurate. But if the election officials said “367” it would not seem right for The Free Press” to round that number off.

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  5. Gustopher says:

    Since it seems the numbers are mostly +/- 3 or 4, we simply are not talking about significant fraud.

    Everyone has been mentioning “significant fraud” lately, as the phrase has percolated through the media, and I think it’s a bad phrase — it suggests that there is fraud, but we’re pretty sure it’s not a lot.

    There is no evidence of fraud.

    And based on the numbers, there is no opportunity for errors or fraud large enough to overturn the results in any state.

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gustopher: Yep, there is an assumption of fraud as opposed to mistakes.

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  7. Not the IT Dept. says:

    “Electoral fraud” – as opposed to electoral fraud in real life – has nothing to do with actual numbers. For decades it’s been code for how the wrong people voted, and that is how the GOP is dealing with the situation. Discussions about the troublesome votes not being numerous enough to matter are missing the point as far the GOP are concerned. Any vote by the wrong person should be opposed as a matter of course to preserve the purity of the nation.

    We are so not the country we pretend we are.

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  8. @Gustopher:

    Everyone has been mentioning “significant fraud” lately, as the phrase has percolated through the media, and I think it’s a bad phrase — it suggests that there is fraud, but we’re pretty sure it’s not a lot.

    There is no evidence of fraud.

    That is a 100% spot-on observation. I suppose in my mind I was thinking “in a worst case scenario” but you are correct, this is an error, at worst, and a very small one.

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  9. Pylon says:

    I agree – the connotation of “significant fraud” leads to broad conclusions. I think journalists are afraid of being caught out by the odd case that pops up (I can think of one this cycle).

    On this certification issue, though, there’s no issue of fraud. It’s just very insignificant adding errors.

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  10. DeD says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    We are so not the country we pretend we are.

    We never really have been, although on individual levels, we try.

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  11. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Here’s a thread from (of all people) David Frum on what’s going on right now and why it’s dangerous for America. He also points out that this is not a both-sides-do-it thing, and that for at least 20 years the GOP has pushed limited voting as a strategy. The past 20 years, of course, includes his time in the WH, and also reflects on George W. Bush who Frum usually treats like a rock star.

    https://twitter.com/davidfrum/status/1329416197117505537

    I find nothing to disagree with in his thread.

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  12. Andy says:

    Elites Signal, the Rank and File React

    I think it’s actually the opposite of this. The elites in the GoP never wanted Trump in the first place, yet primary voters picked him anyway. Ever since elected Republicans and many elites did a 180 not because of a sudden love for Trump, but because of political and strategic necessity.
    They have been and continue to be scared of Trump voters, especially those politicians who have aspirations for 2024.

    The current spinelessness of GoP politicians is just the latest and most prominent example of something we’ve seen many times before, and it’s a case where a party “base” has real power.

    That said, my analysis has not changed. The states will certify the elections and electors will formally declare Biden the winner. Regardless of what Trump does or doesn’t do, the federal government will start taking orders from Biden on January 20th. The GoP taking post-election norm-breaking to a new low does not change that, and it’s a new low that’s driven almost entirely by efforts to appease the GoP base.

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Journalists, and poli sci professor bloggers, are accustomed to academic/elite discourse where one tries to be precise in one’s language. If one says “no significant fraud” one expects that to be understood as “Out of 150 million votes I can’t state with certainty there isn’t a single tiny incident of fraud, but fraud is clearly not a factor.” But the GOP base hears, “See, he admits there is fraud!!”

    I’m developing a pet peeve over the common phrase “peaceful transition”. Not calling out the Army is lowering the bar pretty far. What we expect, and the law requires, is transfer of power as a matter of bureaucratic routine. And we’re not getting it.

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  14. CSK says:

    @Andy:
    Agree. I was going to make this point, but you anticipated me.

    The very reason Trump resonated with his base is that he wasn’t one of the “elites.” (God, I hate that word.) They perceived him, in all his oafish vulgarity, as being one of them. That’s why they called him “the blue collar billionaire.” Why people would joyfully identify with an utter swine–and revel in his swinishness–escapes me, but that’s beside the point, I suppose.

    McConnell et al know full well Trump is a horse’s ass as well as a boor.

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  15. flat earth luddite says:

    @CSK:

    McConnell et al know full well Trump is a horse’s ass as well as a boor.

    There’s an old adage that, IIRC, says something about lying down with dogs…
    Not that Mitch and company care, because as long as they’re in power, it’s all good.

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  16. @Andy:

    The elites in the GoP never wanted Trump in the first place, yet primary voters picked him anyway.

    Except that right now, Trump IS the very definition of a political elite. He is the most elite of party elites.

    His behavior is the very definition of elite signalling.

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  17. @gVOR08:

    where one tries to be precise in one’s language

    The problem here was me being imprecise, TBH.

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  18. @CSK:

    The very reason Trump resonated with his base is that he wasn’t one of the “elites.”

    But, again, this is irrelevant to my point. The point is that when leaders (i.e., elites) say things, followers (the rank-and-file) respond to the signals they send.

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