Eight hours before Donald Trump took the stage in the Detroit suburbs on Saturday, an army of canvassers darted along the line of people snaking outside the hulking sports complex where supporters of the former president were waiting to get in. “You guys think we’re gonna have a fair election?,” one canvasser asked Marco Braggion, 26 and Christian Howard, 25, who was standing in a cowboy hat and jean jacket. “We need to be able to work those polls to keep eyes on what’s going on.”
It was an exchange that underscored how Republicans, stewing in doubts about the 2020 election, are organizing to take control of the machinery of elections – how ballots are cast and counted. And when Trump took the stage Saturday evening, his first visit to Michigan since 2020, that’s what he was focused on too. He was there to campaign for two-little known candidates who are seeking offices that wield significant power over voting rules in Michigan, one of the most important battleground states in the presidential election.
Trump was stumping for Matthew DePerno, who is seeking the GOP nomination for attorney general, and Kristina Karamo, a Republican running to be Michigan secretary of state, the state’s chief election official. Both are seeking to earn the Republican nomination at the party’s convention in the state this month.
Neither has any prior political experience and their political rise stems almost entirely from their efforts to spread misinformation about the 2020 election. Joe Biden defeated Trump in the state by just over 154,000 votes in 2020, and Trump’s efforts to throw out the election. If Karamo and DePerno were elected this fall, it would place two Trump allies in key positions from which they could potentially do what he could not in 2020: overturn an election result.
“Remember this is not just about 2022, this is about making sure Michigan is not rigged and stolen in 2024,” Trump said in a meandering hour and forty-five minute speech in which he repeatedly insisted, falsely, that he won Michigan in 2020. “I have to be honest, I don’t do this often for state people, this is so important. What happened in Michigan, it’s a disgrace.”
Karamo is a part-time community college professor who became a celebrity in Republican circles after claiming she witnessed fraud on election night while observing ballots being counted in Detroit. Those claims have been debunked, but she has nonetheless catapulted to the front of the Republican field in the secretary of state race. She joined an unsuccessful Michigan’s 2020 election from being certified and sought to intervene in an unsuccessful effort at the US supreme court seeking to overturn election results in key swing states. She has called public schools “government indoctrination camps” and suggested those who attacked the US capitol on 6 January were antifa.
She electrified the crowd packed into the astroturf inside the Michigan Stars Sport Center on Saturday night calling Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat currently serving as secretary of state, “an authoritarian leftist who treats the people of Michigan like the unwashed masses.”
“There’s an army of people across our state who are fighting back. Little MAGA warriors and we’re getting the job done,” she said, using the acronym for Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again.
Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Benson said Michigan was “ground zero” in the battle for American democracy. She said Trump was seeking to put loyalists in power who might succumb to future requests to undo elections.
“We’ve also been fighting election-deniers, some of whom now want to take over statewide offices so they can potentially be in a position to block or undo or fail to certify election results that they disagree with in the future. That is simply what’s at stake this fall,” she said.
DePerno rose to prominence last year as he spread false allegations of fraud in Antrim county, in Northern-Michigan, where a clerk made a mistake on election night and posted incorrect numbers that initially showed Biden leading. DePerno led a lawsuit against the county and spread incorrect information suggesting votes could have been switched. A government review and a separate GOP-led investigation of the incident found no evidence of fraud, and was unsparing in its criticism of DePerno.
“No longer will we allow the elites in this country to control our elections and to control us,” DePerno said on Saturday. He has pledged to arrest Benson and Dana Nessel, the current Democratic attorney general.
“[Trump] wants people who will manipulate the 2024 election to his advantage,” Nessel told the Guardian on Friday. “ Just a handful of years ago, they would have been seen as extreme, fringe candidates that never would have gotten any traction in the Republican party. And now, they are emblematic of the Republican party.”
Outside of the rally, a soundtrack of songs that have become staples of Trump rallies – Elton John’s Tiny Dancer among them – blasted while some people played cornhole. Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO got thunderous applause when he briefly appeared.
The most prominent canvassers were those seeking to get rallygoers to sign a petition for a ballot measure to “decertify” the results of the 2020 election in Michigan, something that is not legally possible. Organizers hoped to get 10,000 signatures at Trump’s rally on Saturday, said Janice Daniels, a former local mayor involved in the effort, who was collecting signatures on Saturday. She said she was unmoved by widespread legal agreement that the 2020 election cannot be undone and several reviews in Michigan that have affirmed the result of the 2020 election.
“That’s what the enemies say. They want to discourage you from doing what is right and what is good and what is possible,” she said. “Extraordinary problems require extraordinary solutions. We’re in an extraordinary environment where we had a coup d’etat take over our entire government.”
But some people at the rally acknowledged that decertifying the election wasn’t really a possibility. “I don’t think it’s possible, but it so should have been done. It’s a done deal,” said Diane Zechmeister, 67. Zechmeister said she didn’t follow election administration particularly closely until 2020, “when things went sideways”.
A friend who attended with her, Carol Fischer, 68, said nothing could persuade her that the results of the 2020 election were accurate. “I will never believe that,” she said. Several polls since the 2020 election have shown that many Republicans continue to believe Trump won.
Greg Taylor, 38, also was in line early to get into the rally to ensure he would get a spot inside. Even after state officials, and legislative Republicans in Michigan, have put out several audits and reports debunking conspiracies in Michigan, Taylor couldn’t think of anything that would persuade him the results of the election were accurate. “Not with what I’ve seen. I really, I just can’t see that,” he said. “The only way that we could know is, I guess, through an audit I guess. But who knows about the audit?”
“It’s so hard to trust anybody. I don’t trust either side,” he said.
Tyler Griffin, who was waiting in line wearing an oversized red cowboy hat, also said nothing could persuade him to accept the 2020 results. “I looked at all the numbers and it doesn’t add up.”
Not everyone at the rally was enthusiastic about Trump’s continued focus on elections. Howard, the early rallygoer who was approached about being an election worker, said he hoped Trump would leave the 2020 election in the past.
“I hope he kind of lets it go,” he said. “I know he’s not going to, but I hope he does.”