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Michigan county refused to certify vote, prompting fears of a growing election threat this fall

Michigan county initially refuses to certify local election
Michigan county initially refuses to certify local election 01:10

When a board of canvassers in tiny Delta County, Michigan, refused to certify its local election results for a county commission race last week, the defiant decision raised concerns among election experts and officials about where the 2024 campaign could land in November. 

"Anyone who sees this latest incident in Delta County should be incredibly alarmed," said Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer who has led legal efforts against election conspiracy activists around the country. "We all need to take incidents like this seriously and see it as a wake-up call for what we are almost certain to see this fall." 

The local vote, which was eventually certified under pressure from state officials, attracted little outside attention. But some election experts believe there will be efforts to replicate Delta County's refusal to certify. 

"All of these tactics are designed to paralyze election administration systems nationwide in an effort to force them to fail and undermine voters' faith in the process," said Kim Rogers, executive director of the State and Local Election Alliance. "These anti-democracy groups are taking these steps because they want to discredit the election if they lose."

Doubts about fraud or cheating in American elections emerged during the 2020 campaign and have continued to grow, despite the lack of any evidence to support them. A CBS News poll of Arizona voters released Monday found about half of former President Donald Trump's current voters say now that they'd want to challenge the results if he loses.

The potential for disputes has grown along with those doubts.

Delta County is a conservative, rural part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula that has consistently voted for Trump. The decision to stall a local election certification last week was fueled by outside groups of election conspiracy activists, local officials told CBS News. Since February 2023, a group called Citizens for Electoral Justice has engaged in discussions with Republican officials in Delta County, including the canvasser who refused to verify. Members of the organization voiced concerns about the accuracy of votes counted with the local election machines.

In a photo released on a community Facebook page, a group called the Delta County Citizens said it was working closely with two organizations that raised concerns about "suspicious voting ratios" that "warrants further investigation," including the Election Integrity Force and Citizens for Electoral Justice. The groups advocated for "a hand recount and forensic audit of the results," the complaint shows. 

Nancy Przewrocki, the county clerk in Delta who administered the election, told CBS News there were no voting irregularities in this low-turnout local recall election with only 4,550 votes. 

"We matched the numbers of voters to the number of ballots, to the numbers of ballots counted by the tabulators — all the numbers match 100%," she said. 

Przewrocki, a Republican, has been administering elections for more than 23 years and says she was concerned about the precedent this refusal to certify could set.

"This is absolutely about November, getting ready for what might happen then," she said. "If the vote doesn't go their way, it's not going to be a good situation. They are going to find the same issues with certifying the elections in November as they do now."

Przewrocki said she first realized there was a problem when she heard from the local board of canvassers, which is made up of two Republicans and two Democrats. 

Last Tuesday, the four canvassers met at the courthouse in Escanaba to certify the results. Republican Canvasser Bonnie Hakkola announced to the group that she would not certify, based on her concerns about how the election had been run. She and the other Republican canvasser, an alternate canvasser who was filling in for the day, blocked an election certification for the first time in county history.

John Myers, one of the Democratic canvassers, said he was taken aback.

"Our job is to just to see if the poll workers signed, if the seals are recorded accurately," he said. "We match the total number of voters to the number of ballots that go through the machine." 

Myers, who has been a canvasser for more than 14 years, said the certification hangs on whether the total number of votes cast equals the total number of voters — which he said occurred in this election. He said he thought the whole process would last 10 minutes. 

Video of the session isn't available because the canvassing sessions aren't taped. But Hakkola, the vice chair of the First District's Republican Party, has made several conspiracy-laden public statements voicing concerns about the reliability of voting machines.

 "I'm saying there's fraud inherent in the elections, it's in the machinery," said Hakkola at a County Commission meeting earlier this year. "We have a lot of our agencies infiltrated everyday so there is a lot of fraud…in Michigan and Wisconsin."

Hakkola could not be reached for comment. 

Scott Aughney, of the Citizens for Electoral Justice, told CBS News he had been in contact with officials in Delta County for more than a year. He says Delta County officials initiated contact with his organization ahead of the certification. 

Aughney and his group have been meeting with local Republican party members, law enforcement and election administrators in counties across Michigan. 

"It's not even about Donald Trump anymore," said Aughney, who is based in Jackson County, 400 miles from Delta and is currently running for sheriff. 

Putting pressure on local officials to cast doubt on the voting process is part of a national strategy, says Rogers, a democracy strategist and elections advocate. "These groups are working to undermine public trust in our elections," Rogers said. "And ultimately, our ability to respond to that threat is going to change the direction of this country. " 

Some officials overseeing election in swing states are 2020 election deniers 02:40

Those who administer the elections continue to be under growing pressure from outside groups and some citizens.

County Clerk Przewrocki says the groups are pressuring her to release voter roll data that contains protected personal information, which the state says is illegal to distribute publicly. 

"County clerks are caught between that group and the secretary of state's office," she said. "It's a tough situation to be in."

Two days after the canvassers refused to certify the local vote, the secretary of state's office sent the Delta County clerk's office a letter to advise it of the consequences if the vote was not certified. 

"The Constitution and Michigan Election Law do not authorize boards of county canvassers to refuse to certify election results based on claims made by third parties of alleged election irregularities, or a general desire to conduct election investigations," the letter says. Failure to certify would mean that the clerk would have to personally deliver all records including ballots and voting machines to Michigan state canvassers — all at the county's own expense. The price tag, the letter adds pointedly, will be "expansive." 

The letter was signed by Jonathan Brater, director of elections, secretary for the Board of State Canvassers. 

At a swiftly rescheduled follow-up vote Friday evening, the canvassers voted to certify the vote, with three voting in favor and Hakkola abstaining. 

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