Fact check: Videos showing crowd locked out of Detroit TCF Center with windows obstructed are missing context

Devon Link and Ashley Nerbovig, USA TODAY
·7 min read

The claim: Poll challengers were locked out of a Michigan vote counting center and windows were covered

Many videos came out of chaos and confusion at Detroit's TCF Center on Nov. 4. They spread misinformation fast without meeting much resistance.

“THE STEAL IS ON,” Michael Coudrey captioned an Instagram video posted that day. "Poll watchers locked out and the windows blocked in Wayne County, Michigan.”

In the video, people in a crowd scream as they peer through partially obstructed glass at what appears to be Detroit's TCF Center.

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Coudrey’s website identifies him as an entrepreneur who specializes in “digital information warfare.” Coudrey was also the source of a different video fact-checked by USA TODAY on Election Day.

Coudrey denied USA TODAY's request for comment.

City says there were too many challengers inside

The Detroit Free Press reported that challengers from both sides were locked out because the limit on challengers had already been exceeded. Earlier in the day, 268 Democratic challengers, 227 Republican challengers and 75 nonpartisan challengers were on the floor. The Free Press reported roughly 400 challengers were “freely roaming the room.”

“We were well over the 134 maximum," said the city of Detroit’s lead attorney Lawrence Garcia. "In the haste of doing business, nobody noticed that until it was over 200 for each party, and at that point, we said, we better stop admitting people until some people leave, and we’re under the 134 number.”

Election officials were concerned about COVID-19 spreading, building security and increasing tension as challengers continued to arrive. The TCF Center did not have any metal detectors or pat-downs upon entry.

Election worker Sommer Woods speaks to challengers gathered at an entrance to TCF during vote counting in Detroit.
Election worker Sommer Woods speaks to challengers gathered at an entrance to TCF during vote counting in Detroit.

The number of people per party and per independent organization was designated by the state to be no more than 134, the same as the number of absent-voter counting boards set up to process and count ballots.

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Witnesses claim challengers intimidated election workers

The Free Press reported some challengers were removed for not wearing masks properly, not maintaining social distance from election workers, taking pictures and becoming aggressive.

The Michigan Department of State Bureau of Elections states that such behavior is prohibited by challengers.

Poll workers count absentee ballots for the city of Detroit at the TCF Center in downtown Detroit on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.
Poll workers count absentee ballots for the city of Detroit at the TCF Center in downtown Detroit on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

"If there's any disruption at all, either at our polling places and our absentee counting board, it will not be tolerated, and our precinct workers will be protected, just as our voters will be," Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Nov. 2.

Attorney Danielle Cadoret and law student Jacob Kahn told the Free Press GOP lawyers were inaccurately instructing counters to stop their work.

“Oftentimes, we would see one or more Republican watchers go to the table, which they have every right to do,” said Jeffery Nolish, who volunteered at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But we saw them not respecting the 6-feet rule and then asking questions and interfering with the process."

Democratic election challenger Khaliluh Gaston recalled seeing another challenger harass an election worker as she counted ballots. She also said she witnessed GOP observers verbally question election workers about their personal political affiliation.

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Challengers saw situation as evidence of fraud

This situation quickly became fodder for viral misinformation from challengers who were suspicious about why they were no longer being permitted inside the counting location in such large numbers.

In a viral video posted to Twitter by The Election Wizard, a man tells a crowd he is an attorney and wasn't being allowed back inside the TCF. He argued that poll workers weren’t counting as GOP challengers left so there were fewer Republicans in the room than Democrats.

However, there were 134 spots for each party, and Democrats were denied entry, too.

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The Free Press spoke to Democratic challenger and lawyer Bill Richards, who was denied reentry to the building that afternoon.

“I was totally blown away at the process,” Richards said. “It’s amazing to me that the public is allowed in there.”

Chris Thomas, a former director of elections for Michigan's Secretary of State office, denied allegations that either party was treated unfairly and said he was "extremely confident" Detroit would "come through with a nice clean report."

He attributed the chaos and confusion to challengers' misunderstanding of the counting process. Thomas has worked under Democratic and Republican secretaries of state throughout his career.

The Election Wizard video's original source is still unclear. It starts with someone accessing the screen-recording tool on their phone, meaning this video was likely a copy of the original post. After the video was posted on Twitter, it moved to far-right channels on Telegram, an encrypted instant messaging service.

The Election Wizard did not return USA TODAY's request for comment.

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Workers block windows to prevent intimidation of election workers

When locked-out challengers could not get inside, many began filming through the building’s large glass windows.

Ballot counters said they felt intimidated by people videotaping the process through the glass, and security put up paper on the windows as a solution. However, this measure caused the locked-out challengers to bang on the glass even hard and fueled suspicions.

“We will not allow ANYONE to distract us from the job at hand," Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey later said in a prepared statement addressing protesters. "Our charge is to remain calm, focused and deliberate as we continue the task at hand.”

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Challengers question window coverings and transparency

The man in The Election Wizard’s video described how election officials had put up paper to block the windows into the ballot counting center. At this, the crowd began to yell “sham election.”

The window coverings stoked similar concerns in the video shared by Coudrey.

“If you’re not corrupt you wouldn’t have to do this,” a woman can be heard yelling in Coudrey’s video.

Soon Twitter-verified accounts began to share videos and amplify suspicion around what was happening at the TCF Center, including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

The TCF gathering became a protest and videos continued to spread. However, neither USA TODAY nor the Detroit Free Press could find any evidence to support the theory that Wayne County election workers were more frequently denying Republican challengers entry than Democratic or nonpartisan challengers.

USA TODAY has previously debunked claims questioning the validity of Wayne County's elections.

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Our rating: Missing context

We rate this claim MISSING CONTEXT because our research shows the situation was not as viral videos made it appear and the videos could be misleading without additional context. Viral videos depict crowds of challengers stuck outside Detroit's TCF Center as election workers count ballots inside behind obstructed windows. Statements from officials and witnesses clarify that Republican challengers were not more frequently denied entry. The TCF Center's windows were covered because election workers felt intimidated.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Videos of crowd locked out of Detroit center lack context