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This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
Michigan’s former elections director Christopher Thomas isn’t surprised that the integrity of Detroit’s election process has continuously come into question since the presidential election. Thomas, who consulted on Detroit’s election this year, said the false claims of election fraud are heightened because Detroit is almost 80 percent Black.
“The race factor has been there for decades,” Thomas told BridgeDetroit, referring to the treatment and suspicion that the city faces when it comes to election integrity and fraud claims.
Over the past 45 years, Thomas has built a name for himself in election administration and integrity. He played a pivotal role in November’s election as senior adviser to Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey because of the pandemic.
In 2018, Thomas worked with the Michigan Proposal 3 committee to pass the proposal that allowed for no-excuse absentee voting. After the pandemic and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s March stay-at-home order, he became very concerned about how Michigan would “accommodate a very large mail election.”
“I’ve been talking to Janice Winfrey on and off since I retired but really started engaging in conversation with her last Spring,” Thomas said.
Before the pandemic, Thomas and other experts anticipated that absentee requests would increase by 20 percent, but in April they realized there would be “huge numbers” of absentee requests, shifting from 75 percent in-person and 25 percent vote-by-mail to 25 percent in-person and 75 percent mail.
That’s almost exactly what happened, as 68 percent of Detroit’s vote came in through absentee ballots.
“That’s what started my conversations with Janice,” Thomas said.
His experience became a crucial part of the planning to handle the state’s largest absent voter counting board, said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.
“Secretary Benson was wise to bring in one of the top election advisers in the country – and by far the most learned individual in the state of Michigan – to oversee the largest counting board in the state,” Nessel said in a news release. “No one can hold a candle to the experience, wisdom and objectivity that Chris Thomas brought to this election.”
The ‘race factor’
Through his work as election director and in Detroit this year, Thomas said he learned about the racial dynamics that define elections in Detroit.
According to Thomas, the race factor is “not expressed in hard racial terms — with name-calling or labels against African-American elections officials — but there is and always has been raised eyebrows about what ‘they’re’ doing in Detroit. ‘What’s wrong with those people?’”
When asked if he felt he was treated differently than Black poll workers and election officials, Thomas, who is white, said no poll challengers spoke to him “the way some of them talked to the poll workers, who were primarily Black” at the TCF Center. He overheard very “disparaging” remarks, conversations and attitudes toward Black poll workers.
At a Michigan State Senate Committee on Oversight hearing, Linda Lee Tarver, who testified as a Republic poll challenger, went on a “racist screed,” Thomas said. He said her characterization of Flint and Detroit elections workers “as being lazy and uneducated was blatant racism,” but he noted “that not one person on that panel raised any objection.”
“I think that somewhat epitomizes the mindset of how people view Detroit elections,” he said.
Who is Christopher Thomas?
Thomas was such a crucial component of election administration in Detroit because of his deep knowledge and history working in elections, political experts said.
“Chris is the gold standard for accuracy,” said Mark Grebner, a Democratic strategist who founded Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing.
Thomas, who is 70, started his career in campaign finance with the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974 and then worked at the Federal Election Commission in Washington. He came back to Michigan in 1977 to work as the state elections director under Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State for 40 years.
“Thomas is the foremost elections expert in Michigan and a highly regarded non-partisan steward of the elections process,” Nessel’s office said in a press release last month.
The former elections director retired in 2017 but stayed active in the field.
“Whenever anyone needs a wise eminence to fix things or consult on things, Chris gets hired again,” said Grebner. “Maybe one day they can forget who he is so he can really relax.”
Thomas was offered a part-time position with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC, which was set up by former senators on both sides of the aisle, and worked with the Center for Secure and Modern Elections in 2018.
Thomas officially started working with the Detroit Clerk’s office in September on a three-month contract as an advisor and consultant.
Detroit ran ‘a damn good election’
Before November, nobody knew exactly how pivotal Detroit’s contribution would be to the outcome of the presidential election, but Thomas said everybody in the clerk’s office expected to be in the limelight. It turns out Detroit’s vote was instrumental in turning the battleground state blue. The city’s voter turnout increased by almost 4 percent from 2016 and Biden received 233,908 votes from Detroit.
Thomas said that any analysis of Detroit or comparison to other jurisdictions in the state is “apples to oranges” given the size and volume of Detroit’s vote.
“We dealt with 174,00 mail ballots. No place else anywhere in the state was even near that,” Thomas said. “In terms of one jurisdiction being in charge from beginning to end — from the application, to distribution to receipt, to processing, to tabulation — nobody can hold a candle to Detroit.”
After going through all the affidavits and complaints about Detroit’s election process, Thomas said there were no legitimate claims that met the standard of fraud to “even initiate a serious investigation.”
According to Thomas, “Detroit ran a damn good election.”
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