The Gongwer Blog

Slandering Chris Thomas Is New Low

By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: November 9, 2020 4:14 PM

Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel baselessly accused Chris Thomas, the retired 36-year state elections director who has been assisting Detroit with running its 2020 election, on Friday of committing a felony and ordering elections workers in the city to backdate absentee ballots so that it was clear they were received prior to the 8 p.m. deadline.

In fact, what happened is that some clerk employees forgot to enter the date into the Qualified Voter File computer system that some absentee ballots were received prior to the end of Election Day at Detroit clerk satellite offices. Mr. Thomas said those ballots were in fact stamped with the date they were received when they were received and the lack of QVF entry was a clerical error, and voters are not disenfranchised for clerical errors.

There was no backdating.

Why should Mr. Thomas have the benefit of the doubt? Because in 36 years as the state's elections director under Democratic and Republican secretaries of state, Mr. Thomas was scrupulously nonpartisan, demonstrated time and again an encyclopedic understanding of the Michigan Election Law and rose to become a nationally recognized expert in his field. There were times his recommendations disappointed people in both parties. I can't begin to count the number of times he and former Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer, now an elections attorney, disagreed on an interpretation of the Michigan Elections Law.

Yes, we should note that after his 2017 retirement, Mr. Thomas did endorse Democrat Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state in 2018. And Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey named him to assist Detroit with its November elections operations as part of a partnership with Ms. Benson after some significant issues arose in the August primary election in the city (this story changed to correct who hired Mr. Thomas).

But for heaven's sakes, accusing Chris Thomas – Chris Thomas?! – of feloniously ordering the alteration of votes to rig an election is beyond the pale.

President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in Michigan by an unofficial margin of 146,120 votes. U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) defeated Republican John James by an unofficial margin of 84,316 votes.

Mr. Trump and Mr. James are within their rights to request a recount. The chance of such a recount changing the result is, however, very close to zero. Once the vote is certified following the canvass, the certified margin would need to be less than 1,000 to stand any chance of finding enough missing votes to change the result, and usually both candidates equally benefit from found votes. The universal optical scan system in place for the last 18 years in Michigan also assures far fewer missed votes than the old punch card method.

What a recount likely would find would be some errors and anomalies. This was the case in the recount of the presidential result in Michigan requested four years ago by Green Party candidate Jill Stein. This recount was stopped midway through because Ms. Stein was laughably so far behind Mr. Trump she had no case to justify a recount.

And it is possible many of those problems would be found in Detroit, the subject of all the sound and fury now. It is the state's largest city by far and has had a history of election snafus.

Here's a description of Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey's performance from the 2016 election, courtesy of The Detroit News.

"Right now what voters are getting from the city clerk's office is chaos. They are getting confusing information, confusing letters, inadequate training that's leading to poor results and low voter turnout."

That quote isn't from a Republican like Ms. McDaniel, it's from Democratic now-Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist in 2017 when he was running for city clerk. Mr. Brewer headed up the legal effort for Ms. Stein in that recount and pointed out many of the issues in Detroit as well (though last week he said the process put in place for this election by the city was the best he had seen).

Confusion and errors, however, are not the same thing, not even close, as fraud.

Yet that's what Ms. McDaniel accused Mr. Thomas of committing without evidence (and when Mr. Trump did better in Detroit in this election than he did four years ago, one would have to argue if the Democrats committed fraud, they did an extremely poor job of it).

If Mr. Trump and Mr. James want to seek a recount and/or go to court to contest the election, that is their right no matter how remote their chances of success may be. As we saw in 2016, a recount, even if fruitless toward changing the final outcome, could prove educational (a point Mr. Trump appeared uninterested in then even though he won the state by just 10,704 votes. Mr. Biden won the state by 13 times the victory margin).

If done right, a recount should allow the state to improve its electoral system. And on the remote chance fraud took place, if it's found (and at this moment, there is no evidence of it), that would be a good outcome with those responsible facing the criminal justice system.

But accusing Mr. Thomas of fraud is just plain low.

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