Photos by Franz Knight.
Photos by Franz Knight.

Here’s what election challengers and observers do, and what they did at the TCF Center in Detroit this week.

DETROIT—As election workers worked into the night to count Detroit’s final mail-in ballots at the TCF Center Wednesday, supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the windows chanting, “Stop the count.”  

The scene came just after Trump filed a lawsuit to stop the count of Michigan’s final ballots as Democratic nominee Joe Biden took the lead in the state. 

Inside the TCF Center, challengers representing both major political parties worked alongside ballot counters to oversee the process—Michigan law allows these challengers on both sides to be there. Outside, Republican challengers demanded to be let into the facility that election officials say was at full capacity for the night. 

On-duty observers like Rachel Lutz were called in to help ensure that a fair and accurate vote counting was not disrupted by Republican protesters. 

“Passions were high and therefore tensions were high,” she told The ‘Gander. 

Her shift revealed just how challenging those tensions would make the process, she explained.

A Challenger’s Duties 

Lutz, a Detroit businesswoman and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) observer, arrived on the scene at the convention center at roughly midnight on Election Day. Like many challengers, she took on the shift not to represent any political party, but the people of Michigan’s largest Democrat-majority city, to ensure their votes were all heard, too. 

Both political parties send ballot challengers to counting sites during an election, and the strict legal codes of conduct for those challengers apply equally to both parties, Lutz explained. Some of those rules are unique to the 2020 election, like maintaining social distance and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and keep election workers and other challengers or observers as safe as possible.

While observers like Lutz and challengers like those sent by the political parties have different roles in counting facilities, both are required to follow the same codes of conduct. Lutz said that she regularly saw Republican challengers breaking those codes of conduct.

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“The MIGOP challengers were not observing social distancing at all, and one of our biggest tasks was to physically protect the counting staff from COVID,” Lutz said. “I observed many challengers who were within one foot of election workers, which was not permitted. So a lot of what we had done was just to make sure that simple, basic distancing rules were followed.”

Amid this, though, Lutz saw the workers as enduring with professional grace.

“Many people told me that they felt the proximity in which they were being stood over made them feel intimidated and it made it challenging to focus on their work, [but] every worker that I saw was acting very professionally and doing their best to do a very thorough job under the circumstances,” Lutz said.

Where Things Went Wrong

New challengers were only admitted to TCF to replace departing challengers of their same political affiliation. In total, just among challengers, nearly 500 were present by Wednesday afternoon.

“We had heard that they were trying to challenge the ongoing count process,” Laura Misumi, managing director of Detroit Action, told The ‘Gander Wednesday night. “At the end of the day, you have to have a legitimate reason to challenge a ballot and we were able to make sure people who had frivolous challenges didn’t deny someone the right to cast their vote and have that vote be counted.”

She said that at one point, from where she was in the counting room, she could hear the protesters outside chanting.

“I think the scariest part was [when] Trump filed a lawsuit,” Detroit Justice Center attorney Jeoffery Leonard told The ‘Gander Wednesday night. He was also on the scene at TCF to help ensure integrity in the count. “Then a bunch of Republicans inside, they told us at the instruction of their lawyers, started telling all the poll workers to stop counting the ballots, that they were challenging all of the ballots in a really aggressive, really disruptive way.”

Leonard said the election challengers who were in the room with the ballots being counted argued that they weren’t being allowed to monitor the counting process. 

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“There were people banging on the glass screaming ‘let us in,’” he explained. “For me it was a very, very scary moment. And I think what was inspiring was at one point that chant of ‘stop the count’ I think turned into ‘count every vote.’ And that’s what, I think, we got to see happen.”  

Later reports by the Washington Post describe Detroit police having to physically hold back Trump protesters attempting to disrupt the count. Election workers put up white posters to block their view of the fervent crowd. 

But while the situation at TCF was unusual, the process itself was ordinary Attorney General Dana Nessel explained to the Post.

“Michigan’s elections have been conducted transparently, with access provided for both political parties and the public, and using a robust system of checks and balances to ensure that all ballots are counted fairly and accurately,” she said.