Michigan’s Election Plunges Headfirst Down A Weird Rabbit Hole

Yesterday afternoon, I biked down to the TCF (née Cobo) Center in Detroit, where an anti-ballot-counting protest was taking place. Yes, you read that right– a gaggle of a few dozen Trump supporters had gathered at the front doors of the sprawling convention center, demanding that the vote count be stopped, ostensibly so that the protesters could “observe” the election. Shaffwan Ahmed, man-about-town and erstwhile Detroit Revitalization Fellow, formerly with Global Detroit, livestreamed some videos from inside TCF and graciously gave me updates before I arrived.

Thus began a strange Black Mirror episode.

Per Ahmed’s stream, protesters in the basement of TCF were shouting down election officials, demanding to be let into the space where the ballot counting was taking place. Parties have the right to challenge election results in many cases. This was less about exercising a right than it was about making a scene. The dominant sentiment from the folks I interviewed was that there is no way Biden could have won Michigan. No one came to his rallies. The polls were wrong in 2016. There is something fishy going on.

Elections have specific processes that involve poll watchers, poll workers, and observers from both public, partisan, nonpartisan, and nonprofit entities. The Trump camp firmly believed that the vote count should have stopped on Election Day, when Trump was ahead. Based on the protest sentiments across states, we can distill the idea that “mail-in ballots are valid, as long as they’re for our guy.”

Pro-Trump protesters demanding that ballots stop being counted were, for the most part, deferential to police. The police did not deploy teargas, even when the mob got rowdy, shouting profanities at officers and officials, or occupied the public right-of-way. One supposes that this is an honor the department reserves for Black Lives Matter protesters.
The Disaffected and the Misinformed

Out front, I interviewed a few pro-Trump protesters, including Karen, a Detroit city resident. Karen had driven downtown and met up with a colleague who had driven from Lenawee County. She came to the protest after receiving an e-mail from the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, a conservative super-PAC. The e-mail, which Karen forwarded to me for reference, states the following:

“Biden is leading trump [sic] by 18 votes with 94% of precincts reporting. You read that right, EIGHTEEN VOTES.”

It is unclear where this number of 18 votes comes from. Early voting and mail-in voting has tended to favor Democrats. And, given the stark blue-red disparity in voters who take the novel coronavirus seriously versus those who are less concerned about it, this is perhaps unsurprising. In other words, Election Day voters might be less concerned about the pandemic. This means that ballots mailed in– rather than filled out at polling places, in person, on Election Day- are probably more likely to swing the tallies toward Biden. I posed this question to a number of folks I interviewed. None seemed convinced. Something fishy is going on, they said in some way, in each case.

Here’s a [minimally-edited] transcript of my and Karen’s discussion:

HANDBUILT: So, what was the objection to the ballot process?

KP: They have certain people counting the ballots, but they need to have some people watching them.

HANDBUILT: Do you think it’s not sufficient to have trained election workers overseeing the process?

KP: You know, let me see. (Karen reads the e-mail from the Tea Party Super PAC).

HANDBUILT: So, does that mean that you do not buy the numbers that were reported?

KP: No. Because they stopped counting in the middle of the night, and suddenly Biden’s ahead.

HANDBUILT: Ok, what would you say to– there is analysis that says that the mail-in ballots and absentee ballots generally tend to favor Democrats. So, what do you say to that?

KP: That could be true, but the question is whether all of those mail in ballots are valid. I mean, I got mail-in ballots that I didn’t request.  And I just threw them away… but who’s not throwing them away? Who could have created them for themselves, and then filled them out? [Clarification: It is unclear whether Karen is referring to the ballot request forms that were sent out in many cases to voters, which are not themselves ballots. Universal mail-in ballots are not sent out in Michigan.]

HANDBUILT: You don’t think that the trained poll watchers and election workers who are trained in this process are … necessarily going to do this? To check and make sure the ballots are, in fact, valid?

KP: I don’t know that. I just know that there was this call because they needed some help.

HANDBUILT: So, as of last count, it looks like Biden is up by 61,000 votes in Michigan. But you’re saying you don’t buy that.

KP: Oh, my gosh, no. Are you kidding me? No one came to [Biden’s] rallies. Trump has rallies that are 50 miles long.

HANDBUILT: So, you don’t believe that that number is correct.

KP: No, I do not!

HANDBUILT: Because the rallies were big.

KP: Well, that’s one thing. So many rallies. Biden has rallies, no one comes. Trump announces, five minutes later, he’s having a rally, and hundreds and hundreds of miles of cars are coming.

HANDBUILT: Sure, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to electoral numbers.

KP: Where are these people? [Electoral numbers are] when you have a population of the state voting.

HANDBUILT: Are you concerned at all with the question of COVID spreading as a product of Trump rallies?

KP: No. Not at all. Look, if I don’t have to, I never wear a mask. I’ve had the flu twice in my life, once in my twenties, and the next time was six years ago when I started [a new job]. I was like, oh my gosh, I’m working in a petri dish. I need to be more careful. I figured it all out on my own, I needed to wash my hands more, be careful what I’m touching. All of that. I haven’t had the flu since.

HANDBUILT: So, you don’t think you could get it–

KP: Of course I could get it. First of all, over 98% of people who get it survive. They don’t die.

HANDBUILT: Right, but not everybody has gotten it. [Clarifying note about the arithmetic here: If 238,000 Americans have died from COVID, this is less than a tenth of one percent of the US population. However, as a percentage of positive tests, this number works out to more like 2.4%. 2.4% of the population would work out to nearly 8 million deaths.]

KP: Not everybody has gotten it, no, but not everybody is going to get it.

HANDBUILT: But if 100,000 people a day are getting COVID–

KP: But more people get the flu! More people are dying from the flu than from COVID. We don’t shut down the country for the flu.

HANDBUILT: But that’s not really the case. In the worst years, flu mortality might peak at 60,000 deaths, while–

KP: It’s similar.

HANDBUILT: –we’ve had 240,000 COVID deaths this year alone, almost all outside of flu season–

KP: They’re not all COVID deaths, though. You can go on the CDC site and they’ll say that 8,000 of those are actual, pure COVID deaths. Everyone else has either had a heart failure, lung problems, cancers, something else. [Fact check: This is a common trope among COVID-skeptics, and it isn’t 100% untrue. A large percentage of COVID deaths involve patients who had some sort of other condition making them more susceptible. But this does not mean that COVID isn’t killing them. 18 million Americans have heart disease, and 70 million are considered obese. There are around 55 million Americans over the age of 65. These are all high-risk groups and account for at least a third of the country.]

HANDBUILT: There are a number of western states– Oklahoma, North and South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and Idaho- that largely avoided high COVID rates earlier in the pandemic, but have recently seen intensive care units exceeding capacity. How does that square up with your characterization that COVID isn’t that serious?

KP: I would question whether or not those are total COVID people.

HANDBUILT: But is it not concerning to you that that is happening while we are having positive COVID diagnoses?

KP: We’re having more tests, that’s why you’re having more positive diagnoses. More testing means you’re going to have more people. If you didn’t test, you wouldn’t have anything.

HANDBUILT: So, where are you getting information that you trust?

KP: I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. They’re giving facts that you don’t hear from the alphabet news. ABC, NBC. They don’t tell you all of the wonderful things Trump has done. They don’t tell you all of the real facts about COVID.

HANDBUILT: Where do you think people should go to get more “real facts” about COVID?

KP: I think you should go listen to some more real media like the conservative talk shows. Rush [Limbaugh], Dennis Prager, [Detroit-based Christian radio host on WMUZ] Bob Dutko, Darryl Wood[Aside: Dennis Prager, founder of PragerU, complained in February 2020 that “the left has made it impossible to say the N-word. It’s disgusting. It’s a farce.”]

HANDBUILT: You’re not concerned with, say, people like Rush Limbaugh calling women sluts if they use birth control?

KP: When did he say that?

HANDBUILT: I believe it was a couple of years ago, but–

KP: Oh, yeah, let’s dredge up ancient history, but not dredge up what’s going on with Joe Biden, who is receiving billions and billions of dollars from China […] all of the e-mails surrounding that are on that laptop. Which is a valid laptop. It is Hunter Biden’s laptop. Proving that Joe Biden was involved in this scheme, pay-for-play […] [Between forensic analysis and investigative journalism indicating a lot of inconsistencies in the Hunter Biden story– and the laptop repair guy’s apparent affinity for Seth Rich conspiracy theories- the alleged e-mail story does not seem to have factual basis, but, for whatever reason, it’s extremely popular among the right.]

HANDBUILT: So, where should people get their information? Who’s the mainstream media?

KP: CNN, ABC, CNBC, all of the alphabets–

HANDBUILT: What about Fox News?

KP: Fox News! Sometimes Fox News! They’re biased against the conservatives.

HANDBUILT: But you have a lot of big fans of Trump at Fox News. You’ve got Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson–

KP: You also have [Chris Wallace, who moderated the first presidential debate.] He’s a Trump hater.

We continue with an ontological back-and-forth about what the role of the media is. I tell her that as a journalist, I pride myself on asking tough questions. And I tell her that this is my job. However, as someone who is independent, I don’t have to be worried about the reactionary Detroit News editorial staff. So, I don’t pretend to be unbiased. But, I tell her, I try to give both sides of every story. There are indeed credible Republican and conservative voices in the United States. Rush Limbaugh, who has a particular affinity for fabrication and untruths, is not one of them.

I left Karen to continue to listen to the Darryl Wood show streaming from 1500 AM on her phone. Wood is a conservative Christian radio host syndicated on Salem Media Group’s WLQV. The publicly-traded, California-based, conservative media company, also owns PJ Media, which has prominently promoted a number of falsehoods and conspiracy theories, and Twitchy, a news aggregator website that columnist Michelle Malkin invented to curate specifically conservative news from Twitter. Both sites are replete with outrage over the alleged voter fraud that election observers and experts agree, well, isn’t happening right now.

I catch Karen on my way out and I tell her I’ll be in touch. I appreciate that someone has given me their contact information, which usually doesn’t happen. Compare this with a woman who said that she came in from Redford with members of her West Bloomfield church– and was shouting down poll workers– declined to give more than her first name of ‘Shelley’.

“I’ll send you some stuff to check out,” Karen says.

“Sure, just no QAnon,” I say with a grin. “You know, I have to draw a line somewhere.”

Indeed, we do have to draw a line somewhere. Where the die-hard Trump voters draw a line, however, is anyone’s guess. Battleground states are at risk of becoming literal battlegrounds as right-wing pundits demand that activists storm cities where, as of Thursday morning, ballots are still being counted. Paula White, spiritual advisor to a president who once referred to “Two Corinthians,” pounded a sermon last night invoking angels and glossolalia as she called divine forces to the support of the President. Tucker Carlson claimed that the “outcome of our presidential election was seized from the hands of voters,” which is ironic given the crowds of Trump voters demanding that the outcome of the presidential election be seized from the hands of voters.

A pro-Trump protester demanding that the ballot count be stopped wearing a “Governor Whitmer Is An Idiot” mask.
Epilogue: The Vote Heard Round The World

I’ve been following politics fairly closely for almost twenty years, so it was somewhat of a reality check for me to run into both German and French press out front of the convention center where I had attended so many events over the years. In case there was any confusion, dear reader: foreign news media does typically cover US elections, as US politics provide a kind of high drama unparalleled by the banal, civil law jurisdictions of the Continent. Sure, they yell a lot in the House of Commons, but whether England or Canada, the things that pass as haute scandal are benign by American standards. I often raise eyebrows in Canada when discussing Canadian electoral politics. Because, as Canadians tell me, “we don’t really pay attention to our politics, because yours are just more interesting.”

But these stories were making their way around the world as European press reported on a legitimate election being aggressively undermined by the president and his supporters.

Never did I think I’d see the day.

Then again, I never thought I’d hear someone tell me earnestly that Rush Limbaugh is a good source for accurate news reporting.

A pro-Trump protester shouts at a counterprotester. The man yelled that Margaret Sanger was a racist.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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