United States President Donald Trump’s campaign filed a new lawsuit in the state of Michigan on Wednesday, alleging its poll watchers – known as “challengers” – were blocked from witnessing the ballot count at a convention centre in Detroit on November 4.
The legal challenge in Michigan, where Joe Biden won by 146,000 votes, also asked the court to stop the certification of any votes that were processed when challengers were “excluded” from observing the count at the TCF Center.
“These irregular activities could be the tip of the iceberg,” Matt Morgan, general counsel for the campaign, said during a November 10 press call about the lawsuit.
Trump has still refused to concede the election to Biden, and his campaign has filed a string of lawsuits across the US alleging widespread fraud took place – a claim that has been rejected by election officials and other experts.
In Michigan, an election official and a Democratic challenger who were at the TCF Center on November 4 told Al Jazeera the Trump campaign’s claims are false.
Christopher Thomas, senior adviser to the Detroit City Clerk, and Democrat challenger Khalilah Gaston, who both signed affidavits, said Republican challengers were in the room at all times – and that more Republican challengers were present than Democratic ones, in fact.
They said GOP challengers harassed and intimidated election workers and did not respect social distancing rules to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19. Those without proper masks were ejected by police, Thomas said.
At one point, they said Republican challengers in the room illegally chanted, “Stop the vote!”
“I was in tears a few times because I could not believe this was occurring in the United States,” Gaston said. “It was a slap in the face of our democracy.”
Questioning the process
In the US system, registered voters known as “poll watchers” may watch the count in person and challenge ballots. In Michigan, they are called “challengers”.
Before Election Day, Trump repeatedly predicted widespread fraud, without evidence, and called on his followers to scrutinise the election. “Be poll watchers when you go there, watch all the stealing and thieving and robbing they do,” he said.
“Because of the lies and misinformation circulating on social media, people came into the room already thinking the worst,” Gaston said of Republican poll watchers. “They were already fired up.”
I was in tears a few times because I could not believe this was occurring in the United States. It was a slap in the face of our democracy
Republican challengers were suspicious of the process, affidavits show. Challengers said they questioned officials about suitcases in the room.
Challenger Alexandra Seely, who attended the count with her father, wrote in her affidavit: “There [were] backpacks and suitcases that were [saran] wrapped in the back of the counting room over by the escalators.”
She said her dad repeatedly asked a security guard about the suitcases and she alleged that the guard said if they did not walk away, “he would call the police over to arrest” them. Detroit television station WXYZ later debunked the fraud claims, saying one suitcase belonged to their photographer.
Challenger Abbie Helminen said in her affidavit that she tried to take photos of the suitcases and “was threatened to be kicked out”.
Thomas said taking photos was against the rules.
Republican challengers also said they saw ballots being “duplicated”. But Thomas explained that military ballots are in a different format that cannot be read by the machine, so workers copy them in order to scan them – they are not counted twice.
Gaston said one ballot could not be scanned because it had candy on it, so a worker copied it onto a new ballot. She said a Republican challenger became frustrated when he saw this happen.
The Republican challenger did not have his mask up so she asked him to pull up his mask but he would not comply. She notified a supervisor and they asked the man to take a walk “because he was getting visibly upset”.
Gaston said she witnessed a Republican challenger touching ballots and another asking workers their political affiliation. Thomas said police ejected one person for taking photos of ballots.
Challengers and election staff worked day and night amid a high-stakes hyper-partisan election.
About 1,300 people worked in the TCF Center on November 4, Thomas said, including challengers, lawyers, election workers, media and police. There were 134 tables in the room, each with six to eight election workers and one supervisor, Thomas said.
When a ballot was processed, Gaston said it moved along a table through the hands of workers who each have a different task – for instance, verifying the signature or scanning the ballot. A screen at one end of the table displayed the electronic poll book, Thomas said. Each table had Republican, Democrat and independent challengers.
Thomas said there was a call out on social media that morning for challengers at the TCF Center.
Braden Gaicobazzi wrote in his affidavit that he saw a GOP post calling for challengers on November 4. He arrived that morning and was trained as a GOP challenger. “Once inside, it was apparent that many and probably most tables in the room were hostile towards people with GOP lanyards,” he wrote.
Biden overtook Trump in the Michigan vote count on the morning of November 4, and Gaston said that about 11am local time (16:00 GMT), the temperature of the room shifted.
Once inside, it was apparent that many and probably most tables in the room were hostile towards people with GOP lanyards
“We saw GOP challengers literally berating them verbally, crowding around, sometimes six of them, asking questions, demanding that they answer them, questioning what they were doing,” she said. They were “hovering over people as they were working”, she added.
Thomas said her description was accurate. Republican challengers should only have one person per table, he said. Instead, they gathered in groups around workers, which was “intimidating” and “unsettling” for them. He said they broke the rules by talking to workers.
Mob of angry people
There was a cap on the number of people allowed in the room. In the afternoon, the room reached capacity. Gaicobazzi said he was told if he left, he could not get back in.
Challengers from all sides were locked out because the room was over capacity, Thomas said.
Misinformation circulated on social media that officials were hiding the ballot count. A mob of angry people gathered outside the glass doors. “I literally saw the windows shaking,” Gaston said. “People were hitting the windows … I actually saw a man climb the windows.”
Police told the crowd to step away from the door. Staff covered the windows with cardboard because people were recording on their phones, both Thomas and Gaston said.
“I saw people videotaping me when I left [to go to the bathroom],” Gaston said. “It really was a safety risk.”
At one point, Gaston and Thomas said people outside the windows started chanting “Stop the vote!” and a Republican group inside started chanting it, as well. However, Thomas said their leaders told them to stop because it was illegal.
Social distancing and masks
Police kicked out a handful of people for improper masks, Thomas said, including one man who wore a white theatrical mask covering his whole face. “He made a bunch of noise and was immediately escorted out,” he said.
According to Thomas and the Secretary of State’s Office, the Bureau of Elections set guidelines that everyone must keep six feet distance. Challengers could approach the table if they needed to challenge a ballot. If they had questions, they could ask a supervisor.
Republican challengers wrote in their affidavits they could not see ballots from six feet away, alleging lack of transparency. Gaicobazzi said he repeatedly approached the tables and was told “on numerous occasions” to keep six feet away.
At 8pm local time (01:00 GMT), he saw a table counting about 35 ballots and entering birthdates of 1/1/1900. He tried to challenge all the ballots and “a debate ensued”. He wrote: “I was given the COVID runaround and separated from the table.”
Thomas said Gaicobazzi failed to understand the situation. Clerks had already verified the signatures on these ballots, he explained. The state does not use birthdates for verification, so if ballots are missing birth dates, workers enter 1/1/1900 until they can find the actual birth date.
Gaicobazzi said he tried to see the ballots again and “the table swarmed with Democrat operatives” yelling at him to stay six feet away and complaining about his mask, which he said had moved because he was forced to talk so much.
He said a supervisor threatened to “kick my a** or kick me out”. Shortly after, police escorted Gaicobazzi from the room.
Thomas said there was no fraud at Detroit’s ballot count. He said the allegations in the lawsuit are “a smokescreen for political theatre”.
“It’s important to acknowledge the contribution that workers made to come out and do this laborious work in a dangerous time under some very trying circumstances,” he said.