Michigan taxpayers to help foot bill for Proposals 2, 3 recounts that won't change outcome

Michigan taxpayers will help cover the costs associated with the recounts of two ballot proposals allowed to proceed by the state's elections panel despite concerns the exercise would provide fodder for election misinformation and questions about the legality of the request.

The review won't change the outcome of Proposals 2 and 3. Michigan voters approved the proposals by wide margins. Proposal 2 − which establishes early voting and other election changes − received nearly 60% of the vote in the recent Nov. 8 election while Proposal 3 to enshrine abortion rights in the Michigan Constitution received nearly 57% of the vote.

The recounts will not review enough votes to possibly change the outcome, the Michigan elections director said during a Board of State Canvassers meeting Monday.

"It's frustrating and it's really not a good use of taxpayer dollars," said Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown, a Democrat, who said the costs imposed on the county will depend on how long the recount takes but will include pay for election workers and staff. The assertions of fraud in the petitions in the recount are inaccurate and false, she said. "It is this continuing narrative of spouting disinformation, misinformation," she said.

Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck said he views the recounts as an opportunity to demonstrate to those who doubt the integrity of voting machines that the equipment counts ballots accurately. "I'm looking at it not necessarily as an opportunity for misinformation. I'm looking at it as an opportunity to prove that the system works. And I'm happy to do that," he said.

"Obviously it's an additional cost burden on our taxpayers," he said. "But it's a process that exists under the law."

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During a meeting to review the petition for the recounts, GOP canvasser Tony Daunt and the board's chair derided the request, calling it a "fishing expedition" spearheaded by those who deny the legitimacy of the election.

"I personally think this is a gigantic waste of time. I think it is poisonous to our system," he said. During the tense meeting, Daunt sparred with attorney Daniel Hartman who appeared on behalf of recount petitioner Jerome Jay Allen. Hartman yelled at Daunt, accusing him of bias and Daunt, in turn, threatened to remove Hartman.

Election Integrity Force, the group Hartman said supported Allen's request for the recounts, filed a lawsuit earlier this year to decertify the 2020 election. The group thanked the America Project for providing financial support for the recount in a statement on its Facebook page. The America Project, backed by election conspiracists and allies of former President Donald Trump, helped recruit citizen election monitors for the recent midterm in ways election experts worried blurred the lines between lawful oversight and vigilantism.

Allen must pay $125 for each precinct recounted, according to the Secretary of State's Office. But that won't cover the significant costs imposed by the recounts, according to county clerks.

Brown said the recount in Oakland County will begin Wednesday and will entail paying county canvassers and 100 workers to help carry it out, plus meals and overtime for her staff.

"It adds up real fast," she said.

Nicole Wells Stallworth, Executive Director at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, speaks during a Yes on Proposal 3 campaign watch party at the David Whitney Building in downtown Detroit on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.
Nicole Wells Stallworth, Executive Director at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, speaks during a Yes on Proposal 3 campaign watch party at the David Whitney Building in downtown Detroit on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

While only three precincts in Ottawa County will undergo a recount, Allen's payments still won't cover the full costs there either. Paying counting teams and members of the county canvassing board alone will cost over $1,000, Roebuck said. Paying staff from the county clerk's office for their time and transporting ballot containers to the recount site will also impose residual costs, he added.

GOP canvasser Richard Houskamp during the Board of State Canvassers meeting Monday characterized the recount as a futile exercise but worried that prohibiting it would fan the flames of election conspiracies.

"We've seen no fraud," he said. "It hasn't stopped the noise. And right now we have a request for a recount that won't go anywhere. But by turning down that recount at this board level, my concern is that all we're going to do is we're simply going to amp up the noise, and we're going to create more heat in the fire."

Michigan Board of Canvassers Vice-Chair Mary Ellen Gurewitz at a Michigan Board of Canvassers meeting at the Boji Tower in downtown Lansing on May 26, 2022.
Michigan Board of Canvassers Vice-Chair Mary Ellen Gurewitz at a Michigan Board of Canvassers meeting at the Boji Tower in downtown Lansing on May 26, 2022.

Steve Liedel, an attorney representing Reproductive Freedom for All, which sponsored Proposal 3, argued that Michigan election law requires those seeking a recount of ballot proposals to provide a specific description of an error the petitioner believed occurred in the returns from election workers or the canvass carried out by a Board of County Canvassers.

"There's no description of any fraud in the petition before you. None," he said. Instead, it includes general assertions of wrongdoing previously undercut by a Wayne County judge who dismissed a lawsuit that threatened to disenfranchise tens of thousands of Detroit voters based on similar claims. Hartman, the lawyer who represented the recount petitioner during the canvassing meeting Monday, also served as an attorney in the Wayne County case and during one court hearing yelled at the judge when told the lawsuit would disenfranchise military voters.

Assistant Attorney General Erik Grill disagreed with Liedel.

"Even if the claims of fraud or error were wrong, incorrect, unfounded or whatever else would be the basis for arguing that they're insufficient, I have found no legal authority for this board to either refuse to perform a recount or to reject a recall petition on the basis of the board's determination that the claims of fraud or error were insufficient to justify a recount," he said.

Mary Ellen Gurewitz − the only Democratic canvasser present at the meeting − blasted the petition for recounts as rife with debunked election conspiracies. "But if the statute provides that it is a right to waste that time and money, then we have to exercise that right," she said. In a 3-0 vote, the board adopted procedures for the recounts following a lengthy discussion.

Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at chendrickson@freepress.com or 313-296-5743. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Pricey recount for Michigan's Proposal 2, 3 won't change outcome