In April 2021, Monica Palmer walked into The Token Lounge, a rock-and-roll bar outside Detroit, for a meeting of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District Republican Committee. About 75 people gathered around tables on a black-and-white checkerboard dance floor.
For three years, Palmer had filled an obscure position deep within the gears of the U.S. election system. She was a member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, appointed by party leaders to certify election results.
But that anonymity vanished after Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election became apparent and then-President Donald Trump began casting about for ways to reverse it.
The campaign to block Biden’s election was particularly intense in Wayne County, and three months after Biden had taken office, the intensity hadn’t waned for Palmer. She’d been invited to The Token Lounge by David Dudenhoefer, the committee’s leader and one of the people who had put her on the board. He wanted her to explain why she had certified the election and effectively delivered Biden the votes he needed to carry the state.
Dudenhoefer spoke first.
“Hey, if we don’t focus on what happened in 2020 and straighten that out, you can forget 2022, 2024, 2028, 2030,” he said, according to a video recording of the event. “Because right now, tens of millions of Americans feel like these elections are rigged. And I’m one of them.”
When it was Palmer’s turn to speak, she stood in front of a dark stage in a green summer dress and flip-flops and was at once defiant and contrite.
“Now I will take the heat,” she said, adding that she was “off-focus” during the highly contentious public Zoom meeting in which the certification took place. She told the group that she didn’t want to certify the election but that, legally, she had no choice.
“The only thing that the Board of Canvassers has the authority to do is to compare the statement of voters, the number of ballots that were received versus the number of ballots that were tallied and to make any mathematical corrections,” she said.
In fact, Palmer and her Republican colleague on the board, William Hartmann, had first voted not to certify the election, citing differences between the number of votes cast and the number of votes tallied in some precincts. The board was deadlocked 2-2. But the Republicans changed their votes to yes after a Democrat on the board promised that state officials would audit results down the road.
Dudenhoefer wasn’t impressed with that explanation. “You were willing to compromise your beliefs, your principles and your standards for a promise of something down the road,” Dudenhoefer told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
When it came time to renominate Palmer for the board, he and his colleagues declined. To replace her, they nominated three candidates who all have said they didn’t trust the results of the 2020 election. Two of them were active in efforts to overturn the 2020 election before they were nominated for the canvassing board.
This isn’t just happening in Wayne County. Since the 2020 election, Republican leaders in Michigan have purged GOP canvassers in eight of the largest counties, including Macomb, Washtenaw, Ingham, Kalamazoo, Livingston, Saginaw and Genesee, according to a report by The Detroit News last year. At least half of them have been replaced with people who have publicly cast doubt on the 2020 election results.
Jeff Timmer, who ran the Republican Party in Michigan from 2005 to 2009, says he’s alarmed by what’s happening to his party.
“They’ve been able to infiltrate the Republican Party right down to the precinct level in a way that I’ve been astounded by,” he said. “They have paid attention to those very obscure, small party positions, precinct delegates, getting their people in place to chair county Republican parties all across the country – not just to Michigan.”
Indeed, Republicans have mobilized against GOP officials who didn’t go along with Trump’s plan to stop the certification across the country. They’ve worked to unseat many of those officials and place election deniers in key positions, from county clerks to canvassers and up to the secretary of state, attorney general and even governor.
Altogether, the movement raises the specter that a campaign to overturn the 2024 election could be much more coordinated than 2020 and face much less resistance.
Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school said the GOP shake-up of election officials in swing states is dangerous and unpredictable.
“I would say in some ways, we are in an unchartered territory, certainly in modern history when it comes to election administration,” he said.
A county canvassing board can’t reverse the results of a national election by itself. But Norden said disputes over county election results could create enough chaos and confusion that the election is taken out of the hands of voters and given to a partisan state legislature to decide the outcome.
“It provides an opportunity to muddy the waters on what really happened in an election, provides the opportunity for more time for litigation to try to encourage state legislatures to step in to try to prevent a certification of results that that side doesn’t like,” he said.
This idea – that a legislature can step in and override the vote of the public – is known as the independent state legislature doctrine, and it has caught fire in conservative legal circles lately.
Michigan: Test Lab of the Anti-Democratic Movement
In the weeks after the 2020 election, Wayne County was one of the most politically contentious places in America.
Droves of Republicans went to Detroit’s TCF Center the day after Election Day, where poll workers were counting absentee ballots. Amped up by Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud and false rumors that poll watchers were illegally being turned away, they banged on glass walls and chanted, “Stop the count!”
Michigan, a swing state, is mostly Republican and White, except for its main metropolitan area. Wayne County is predominantly Democratic. Its largest city, Detroit, is nearly 80% Black. And, if you take away Wayne County from the vote, Michigan goes from a clear Biden victory to a clear Trump victory.
But there was no fraud in Michigan, or Wayne County, that would have changed the outcome of the 2020 election. A bipartisan state Senate Oversight Committee investigation led by Republican Ed McBroom spent months scrutinizing and found no evidence of widespread or systematic election fraud.
The Michigan secretary of state’s office completed 250 election audits and found no evidence of fraud or discrepancies that would have changed the results. In the end, of the 174,000 absentee ballots cast in Detroit, only 17 were found to be questionable.
Still, across the country, the GOP platform rests more and more on the baseless assertions that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was harmless. A handful of swing states have become testing grounds for this movement. Much of the playbook has been written in Michigan, and it stretches back far before the election.
- In April 2020, hundreds of protesters, some armed with rifles, descended on the Michigan statehouse in a failed attempt to force an end to COVID-19 restrictions.
- In October 2020, 13 men were arrested on suspicion of plotting to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the state government.
- On Dec. 14, 2020, the day Democratic electors were meeting at the statehouse to certify the election for Biden, Michigan GOP leaders showed up in person to try to stop them. Sixteen of them signed and sent documents to the National Archives falsely claiming to be the legitimate Michigan electors and casting phony votes for Trump.
- On Jan. 5, 2021, Meshawn Maddock, co-chair of Michigan’s state Republican committee, helped organize a rally in Washington, D.C., for Trump supporters in advance of his Stop the Steal rally the next day. She organized buses to transport Michigan Republicans to the Capitol.
- Right now, supporters of Trump’s election lies are campaigning for the top three statewide office races in 2022 – governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
And then there’s the purge of county canvassers.
Conducting a county election canvass is usually a mundane bureaucratic process. Each of Michigan’s 83 counties has a canvassing board made up of two Republicans and two Democrats. Their job is to make sure the number of voters in each precinct matches the number of votes cast and sign off on the results.
But now those positions are being packed with 2020 election deniers, potentially setting the stage for even more election chaos in 2024.
In Macomb County, which borders Detroit to the north and is the third most-populous county in the state, the newest Republican canvasser is Nancy Tiseo, who in 2020 suggested that Trump should suspend the Electoral College so military tribunals could investigate voter fraud.
In tiny Antrim County, there’s Victoria Bishop, wife of far-right talk show host “Trucker” Randy Bishop. She moderated an event last year with MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, where he said the Supreme Court should remove Biden from office and reinstall Trump.
New Republican canvasser Marvin Rubingh, who sits on the Antrim County board with Bishop, said Trump’s lie that the election was stolen was a “credible allegation.”
Kalamazoo County appointed Tony Lorentz, who said he wasn’t sure Biden won the election or whether he would certify elections in the future.
Monica Palmer, the Wayne County canvasser who was ousted, declined to go on the record for this story. In the weeks after the election, she’d received death threats and text messages with photos of dead naked women. Some of the threats mentioned her daughter. She even found herself on the phone with Trump after the certification as his campaign was still fighting in courts in Michigan to overturn the election.
As a result, she gave a handful of interviews and then tried to lay low, hoping the harassment would blow over. But after she was kicked off the board, she went on “The Paul W. Smith Show,” a Detroit radio program, and described the ongoing purge as part of a new GOP election strategy.
“There are people within the state party who are getting rid of any canvasser that isn’t pulling the line of, ‘We need to stop everything,’ ” she said.
“To find out they’re doing this across the state,” she said, “what other motive would it be?”
The Guys Who Picked Palmer’s Replacement
When it was time to name who would replace Palmer, the decision came down to David Dudenhoefer and two other Republican committee leaders in and around Wayne County.
Until recently, Dudenhoefer – known to friends and colleagues as “The Dude” – was the chair of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District Republican Committee. In 2020, he ran for Congress against Democrat Rashida Tlaib and lost with 18% of the vote. His head is shaved clean and his goatee is showing gray around the chin. When he’s not running for office in a suit and tie, he can be spotted around southeast Michigan in a T-shirt that reads: TYRANNY RESPONSE TEAM. He says he can’t prove it, but he believes the 2020 election was rigged.
Joining Dudenhoefer was a young activist named Shane Trejo, head of Michigan’s 11th Congressional District Republican Committee. The day after Palmer voted to certify the election, he sent her a text message. It read: “You should quit all your GOP posts and never show your face at an event ever again.” Since then, Trejo has pushed for suppressive changes to state voting laws, such as outlawing outdoor ballot drop boxes. He writes for the far-right blog site Big League Politics and used to co-host a podcast called “Blood Soil and Liberty” with a member of the White nationalist group Identity Evropa. (“Blood and Soil” was a Nazi slogan during the Third Reich.)
Dudenhoefer and Trejo were joined by William Rauwerdink, an investment manager and the kind of behind-the-scenes political player that most voters never hear about. He’s held positions on state and local GOP committees and was indicted in 2003 on 16 felony counts related to one of the largest financial fraud schemes in Michigan’s history. He pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, conspiracy and making false statements to investigators. He served three years and nine months in prison and was ordered to pay $285 million in restitution to lenders and shareholders.
Trejo didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview, and Rauwerdink declined to speak on the record. But Dudenhoefer wanted to talk, mostly about what he sees as a quick and steady slide into authoritarianism since Trump left office. He says mask mandates, vaccine requirements and COVID-19 lockdowns imposed by Michigan’s Democratic governor have eroded his freedom and damaged the livelihoods of his family and friends.
“They’ve seen a government shut their business down,” he said. “They’ve seen a government force them to put a cotton mask around their face. They’ve seen things that they never thought they would see government do.”
He said he and his wife spent the last several months in Florida so she could work as a nurse without being vaccinated against COVID-19.
He scoffed at the idea that Republicans are threatening democracy by refusing to accept the results of the election. Or that democracy is even what the country should strive for.
“Well, the type of democracy I’m interested in is where the individual’s liberties are protected always,” he said, “and under a straight democracy that would come into question.”
That being the case, he says majority rule is not what he’s looking for in a government.
“Let’s do this then, OK? So if we got 300 million Americans and the majority of them decided to make cannibalization legal, and now we can just start eating each other,” he said. “I mean, does that make it right?”
One of the people Dudenhoefer and his colleagues nominated to replace Monica Palmer was Robert Boyd, who said publicly last year that, had he been on the board of canvassers in 2020, he would not have certified Biden’s win. Asked why he thought the results were illegitimate, he said he didn’t know because he “wasn’t there.”
Boyd declined to speak to Reveal.
He wouldn’t say whether he would certify the elections in 2022 and 2024, which will both take place during his term on the board.
“Well, Rob is somebody that’s just level-headed,” Dudenhoefer said. “I mean, he puts a lot of thought into things. And I don’t know the man well, you know, just so you understand that.”
Who Can Stop the Election Deniers?
Dudenhoefer and his colleagues can’t just install the next canvasser directly, though.
Once party leaders decide on three nominees, they submit them to their county commission. The commissioners then vote on which one to appoint to the board. But that’s not what happened in Wayne County.
In September, the Wayne County Commission met to appoint Palmer’s replacement. Fourteen of the 15 commissioners are Democrats. The lone Republican commissioner, Terry Marecki, made a motion to vote on appointing Boyd from the three candidates Dudenhoefer and company had nominated. But when commission Chair Alisha Bell asked for a second … silence.
No one spoke.
The commission could have challenged Boyd’s nomination. It was a public meeting, a chance for voters to better understand who administers their elections, how they get that power and what their motives are.
“I wanted to get that moron in front of us and put him through his paces,” said Tim Killeen, the only Wayne County commissioner to respond to an interview request for this story. “Do you even know what the job of canvasser is? Do you understand magisterial duties? Do you plan to violate your oath of office? I wanted to smoke him out under oath.”
Yet he and his fellow Democrats quietly let that opportunity die on the floor. No one protested. No one raised a concern about the future of democracy. Just silence.
Killeen believes Democrats on the commission suspected Boyd would not be an honest broker of democracy. But he argued that vocalizing that would’ve done little good. By law, if the commission doesn’t make the appointment, the task falls to the county clerk. He said his colleagues “didn’t want to get their hands dirty” by voting on his nomination.
“I caved to political peer pressure,” he said. “I wanted to extract a few pounds of flesh. That was my desire, but it wasn’t my decision.”
In the end, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett made the appointment. Boyd is now a Wayne County canvasser and will help administer the next election.
Reveal producer Najib Aminy and former Reveal reporter Byard Duncan contributed to this story. It was edited by Andrew Donohue and Maryam Saleh and copy edited by Nikki Frick.