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Wayne County's election certification controversy, explained

Okay. So if you haven't been on social media in the last 24 hours, you might have missed what happened in the latest dramatic installment of post-election election results. The gist is that the officials tasked with putting the stamp of approval on Michigan's election results refused to do so for a majority-Black district which encompasses Detroit, and where voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for President-elect Joe Biden. Here's what went down with Wayne County's election results.

How vote certification works

Elections are run on a state-by-state basis. In Michigan, there are 83 county-level election boards called "canvassing boards" that approve election results basically by affirming there's no reason not to trust the votes. Each board is made up of four people, two of whom are Republicans and two of whom are Democrats. Every election cycle, the canvassing boards have until a certain date after an election is held to certify the votes so that other departments can do their job. After county canvassing boards certify their results, that information gets bumped up to the state board of elections; after the state certifies the results, electors are able to cast their votes for president as members of the electoral college.

Importantly, if a county canvassing board chooses not to certify ahead of the state-imposed deadline, then the votes of that county may be thrown out. In other words: Even without evidence of fraud, county canvassing board members can invalidate valid votes.

Why everyone is obsessed with Michigan

Michigan, a state that has long suffered from gerrymandering, is somewhat of a political football. It's a battleground state that's part of the much-vaunted blue wall, which Hillary Clinton lost but Biden won. This year, the Republican Party tried digging into the racist feelings of some of its supporters, while the Democratic Party navigated vigilante efforts to suppress the vote. Importantly, President Trump has attacked Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in the past, bucking a long-standing rule of decorum between presidents and governors.

The state and its 16 electoral college votes went for Trump in 2016 and flipped this year, with Biden winning by about 150,000 votes. Many of the voters responsible for helping the Democrat win the White House are the Black voters in Michigan's most populous city, Detroit.

What happened this week

On Tuesday, the very last day that county canvassing boards could certify election results, both Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassing moved to vote for certifying the results for all county jurisdictions — except for Detroit. Monica Palmer, the Republican chairperson of the board (who has an ongoing ethics complaint filed against her), told The Washington Post, "I believe we do not have complete and accurate information in those poll books."

The board was locked in a 2-2 vote: Both Democrats wanted to certify all precincts and both Republicans wanted to exclude Detroit voters. Nancy Kaffer, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, wrote on Twitter, "This is unprecedented in my 20 years covering government here."

By singling out the poll books and voter rolls in Detroit, critics contended that Palmer's reasoning was just another racist dog-whistle, the kind offered by Trump and other Republicans as they continue to lob legal challenges in states where non-white voters helped secure wins for Biden.

"We knew that there were going to be the racist dog whistles that we hear right now about the validity of Detroit voters," Branden Snyder, the executive director for grassroots organization Detroit Action, told the Post. "It really feeds into ... the deep and steeped white supremacy that both the Trump campaign has been running on, but also, unfortunately, the deep-seated racist and racial history that exists in metro Detroit."

It also appears that the efforts in Wayne County were directly supported by those close to Trump. Legal adviser Jenna Ellis cited the move to throw out valid ballots as a "huge win" for the president. As The New York Times pointed out, "The board’s initial 2-2 deadlock was among the starkest examples of how previously routine aspects of the nation’s voting system have been tainted by [Trump's] months-long effort to undermine confidence in the election."

The Zoom call

After word got out that the Wayne County Board of Canvassers wouldn't certify the election results, residents of the Detroit metro area made clear their dismay on a Zoom call designed for public comment. Detroit-area congresswoman, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), said on Twitter that "hundreds of Wayne County residents waited hours to give public comment. One after the other demanded our democracy is upheld, and the Board of Wayne County Canvassers came back and voted unanimously to certify."

Videos of some residents demanding that the vote be counted went viral Tuesday evening. In one such video, local Rev. Wendell Anthony told the Republican members of the canvassing board, "You are a disgrace. ... You have dishonored the legacy of veterans, the legacy of seniors, the legacy of all of those who've been left out and miscounted for generations."

Ultimately, and after significant national public outcry,the Republicans reversed course and the board certified the votes. But the partisan effort to block some people's voices from being heard is a stark reminder of just how many hurdles to accessing the vote remain, and just how much power Trump has had in influencing even the most bureaucratic of democratic processes.

Michigan's secretary of state tweeted Wednesday to remind residents that the fight isn't quite over yet. Now, the state-level entity, theBoard of State Canvassers, has to meet to issue a final certification of the vote.