Kristina Karamo Has Plans to Unwind Michigan Elections
Michigan has over one thousand election systems, but it only takes one secretary of state to throw them into chaos.
Paul McLeod | September 23, 2022
For decades, over 1,600 local offices have combined to run Michigan elections in a sort of harmony. Arguably the most decentralized voting system in the country is held together by the secretary of state, who ensures that votes are counted with enough synchronicity that the public trusts the results.
This delicate network could soon be thrown into upheaval if the office is occupied by the Republican candidate for secretary of state after the 2022 midterms. Kristina Karamo, the challenger to Democratic incumbent Jocelyn Benson, has echoed former President Donald Trump’s lies that he won the 2020 election against Joe Biden. She has attacked Democrats, the media, and even members of her own party that acknowledged Joe Biden’s win as traitors, calling them “evil and wicked people.” And now she is running on making sweeping changes to the system—some of which she legally would not even have the power to enact.
Karamo, who works as an educator and served as a poll observer in 2020, is part of a slate of election deniers aligned with Trump who are now trying to win crucial positions that will oversee future races. In other states where election deniers may take over the secretary of state’s office, concerns have zeroed in on certification, the process by which officials tally and approve election results. In places like Arizona and Pennsylvania, the next secretaries of state could weaponize this typically administrative task and refuse to certify election results.
But when it comes to elections, Michigan is not like most states. The secretary of state does not certify results; that task is in the hands of a board of canvassers, which election deniers are also working to seize. Instead, observers are warning of another constellation of threats to Michigan elections if Karamo sits at their head.
In Michigan, every tiny village and township has a clerk who runs the local polls for state and federal races. There are 1,520 of them in total, plus another 83 at the county level that print ballots and perform canvassing. And tens of thousands of people serve as poll workers.
This year’s secretary of state race in Michigan, then, presents an unprecedented question—what happens when an election denier takes over the job of holding a scattered election system together?
Having this many election officials raises the likelihood that some of the people in these roles are themselves election deniers. Michigan has already seen Republican politicians instructing poll workers to break the rules to catch their opponents committing fraud in the primary election this year. At least one county clerk is training poll workers that a threat of sabotage could come from the inside.
Election staffers know they are going to be feeling pressure. What they don’t yet know is whether they’ll be reporting up to someone who will defend them following the rules, or who is on the side of people claiming fraud.
“As a local election official, if you don’t feel like you have support from the top it makes it very difficult to do your job,” said David Levine, elections integrity fellow at the non-profit Alliance for Securing Democracy and a former election official himself.
Just under the surface of election denialism is the potential threat of political violence. In April of 2020 armed protesters stormed Michigan’s State Capitol in Lansing to protest pandemic lockdown measures. In October of that year, two-dozen people affiliated with local militias were charged in a plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The 2020 election count proceeded peacefully but chaos broke out at one polling station in Detroit after the room reached capacity and officials turned away dozens of people trying to oversee ballot counting. A crowd of people then banged on windows chanting “let us in” and “stop the count.”
Having the person in charge of election integrity claiming fraud would have an enormous impact on the public’s trust in the system. But the impact on poll workers, and the decisions they make in trying to uphold election law could be just as important.
“It’s one thing to be feeling that heat from the outside,” said Levine. “If the arsonist is inside the firehouse you’ve got a whole different problem.”
Karamo has repeatedly alleged the 2020 presidential election was beset by rampant voter fraud. She argued a crime was conducted by the Democratic party, which is “taken over by a Satanic agenda,” and covered up by the media, which she called “the biggest enemy of the American people” who “need to be destroyed.” She accused Benson, the Democratic secretary of state, of being in on the scheme. She has often made sweeping claims of fraud without specifying exactly what she believes happened, though she did sign an affidavit after the 2020 election claiming she witnessed poll workers inputting false names and birthdays to validate ballots.
“Our election cycle has been a robbery. It is an absolute robbery. We must stand up and fight back,” Karamo said in the days following Trump’s defeat to Biden. Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Fraud claims like Karamo’s have been comprehensively debunked. A string of legal challenges from the Trump campaign and its allies, including one Karamo swore an affidavit for, were shot down by the courts. The most famous example was the “Kraken” lawsuit from Sidney Powell and other pro Trump lawyers, named after the mythical creature due to its purported overwhelming force of evidence that would prove voter fraud in Michigan and across the country. The lawsuit turned out to be hundreds of pages of unfounded conspiracy theories and debunked fraud claims. The Republican-controlled state Senate spent months investigating the 2020 election and determined it was properly decided. The race also was not particularly close—Biden won by about 154,000 votes, almost fifteen times the margin by which Trump won the state in 2016.
“We have to recognize how divorced from reality those statements are,” said David Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research and co-author of the book “The Big Truth.” Becker’s book argues that the 2020 election was the greatest success in the history of American democracy, handling the largest turnout and delivering verifiably accurate results during a global pandemic.
“The election deniers have had multiple opportunities to support their claims in court, to submit their evidence to law enforcement, even to show the evidence to the targets of their grift… they have failed at every opportunity,” he told Bolts.
Karamo’s campaign is nonetheless heavily centered on election security and investigating fraud claims. She is promising to halt the use of voting machines unless companies turn over their entire source code to the state, and beef up ballot security with technologies like infra-red, watermarks, fluorescent ink, and magnets.
It is a sweeping platform with one major problem: Michigan law does not allow for the secretary of state to unilaterally make such changes. Shutting down voting machines, for example, would require an act of the legislature.
Still, if elected Karamo would have the authority to order post-election audits, which she could use to target election workers at Democratic-heavy polling stations. Her investigation powers are limited to the administration of elections, though, and she could not prosecute. If she claims to unearth fraud, she would have to pass the matter on to the attorney general or a prosecutor, who would then choose whether to file charges. But Karamo is running alongside other election deniers who may complement her approach: Matthew DePerno, the current Republican candidate who is also a Trump-endorsed election denier who sued to overturn a county’s election results in 2020. And other subscribers to the Big Lie already hold key positions in local Michigan law enforcement.
The prospect of large-scale coordination between an ecosystem of election deniers—the GOP nominee for governor has also said the last presidential race was stolen—would loom large over Michigan’s 2024 election and its aftermath.
Karamo would also have another major path to enact her platform: issuing directives to local clerks. Past secretaries have guided this power towards keeping the system uniform. A secretary who sees the system as corrupt could demand major changes that, intentionally or not, create wide variance in how votes are counted from county to county and town to town.
For example, a secretary, citing security concerns, could instruct clerks to apply strict new criteria to verifying identities. Voters with minor differences from their ID—say, having a beard in their driver’s license photo but not in person, or vice versa—could be ordered to cast a provisional ballot instead.
The law is silent on whether someone’s address on their ID needs to match with the current address on file. Many student IDs do not include addresses at all. A strict interpretation of the rules could mean many students or people who moved could be forced to cast provisional ballots.
People who cast these ballots can show up days later with more ID to verify their identity, but this rarely actually happens according to Chris Thomas, who spent 36 years as Michigan’s director of elections working under both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. “Of course nobody ever shows up. Who is going to trudge downtown to a clerk’s office?” he said.
The secretary is supposed to be a steady hand that enforces uniformity, said Thomas. But one who does not trust the system and tries to get thousands of poll workers to follow dramatic new instructions would likely result in variation and would almost certainly result in litigation.
In 2021, a Republican small-town clerk broke with convention and refused to allow maintenance or perform required accuracy tests on voting machines. She said she did not trust the machines and wanted to preserve their data in case it showed voter fraud in the 2020 election. In that case, Benson took action and had the clerk removed from her duties. It is not hard to imagine Karamo going the other direction and siding with a local official refusing to follow the rules.
“I would expect some very strange instructions to come out to election officials that are going to depart dramatically from how they do their business today. Then things get contentious, they get confusing,” said Thomas of an election-denier taking the reins.
While Michigan’s election system is decentralized, one of its greatest strengths is that it is tied together by a top-down voter database run by the secretary of state. Unlike in most other states, this database is linked to the department of motor vehicles, meaning that when someone changes the address on their driver’s license it is automatically updated on voter rolls. This has resulted in a database that experts say is one of the cleanest and most accurate in all the country.
Karamo and others have argued the opposite, alleging that the Michigan voter rolls are littered with dead people. This is inaccurate, as death records are regularly run against the database to keep it up to date. If Karamo were to make some change to shake up the system, any changes that impact voter rolls would also affect the people who fill DMV offices daily for routine matters.
That, more than any high minded concerns about preserving democracy, may be the ultimate deterrent.
“You can piss people off a lot faster with what you do with the DMV compared to what you do with elections,” said Thomas.