Ruthann Dawley doesn't just suspect Michigan Democrats are out to steal her state's 16 electoral votes from Donald Trump.
She knows they are.
"I was a poll challenger in Pontiac in 2008, and I saw voter fraud within the first minute I set foot in the polling place," the Rochester Hills resident says. "So don't imagine it's not happening."
It's a Saturday morning in Bloomfield Hills, and I've joined Dawley, her husband Clifton, and 10 other Republicans who've volunteered to spend some or all of their Election Day making sure that everything in Oakland County's 540 precincts is on the up-and-up.
Donald Trump has warned for months that Tuesday's election has been rigged against him. His apprehensions, which appear largely fanciful, have triggered a fierce pushback by election officials in both parties, who argue that voter fraud is both exceedingly rare and unlikely to tip any local election, much less the presidential contest, in anyone's favor.
But none of the eight women and four men gathered here at the GOP's county headquarters on Woodward Avenue needs to be convinced that fraud is threat to the integrity of this election, and Alex Fulton, the regional field director charged with training them to be official poll challengers, wastes no time belaboring that premise.
On balance, Fulton says, Oakland County municipalities run clean elections, but there are exceptions.
"Pontiac is higher voter fraud," he says, throwing a knowing nod in Ruthann's direction. "We are very well aware of it."
On the lookout
Fulton's objective, he tells the volunteers, is to teach them how to spot violations of election law and to challenge voters whose elligibility is suspect. Those who refuse to play by the rules should either be turned away or required to cast provisional ballots whose validity can be challenged in the event a contest is close.
Any registered voter can be designated to work as poll challengers in any precinct unless he or she is a candidate whose name appears on the ballot in that precinct, he explains, but volunteers will be strongly encouraged to report to precincts in one of a handful of southeast Michigan communities where down-ballot races, especially those for the state House of Representatives, could go either way.
Fulton says poll challengers designated by each party enjoy the right to stand behind the table where voters are being checked in and to examine each voter's identification along with the municipal poll worker. Poll challengers should alert the party's election lawyers in Lansing if a voter who is unable to provide valid identification and unwilling to sign an affadavit testifying to his or her elligibility is allowed to vote, or if the poll challenger has reason to believe someone trying to vote is unregistered, not a resident of the precinct, or not a citizen of the United States.
The incidence of non-citizens seeking to vote in Oakland County is "very rare," Fulton concedes. "But it could happen, Canada being just 20 miles away."
Volunteers should also be on the lookout for people campaigning within 100 yards of a polling place, for anyone leaving campaign literature in a polling booth, and for voters wearing buttons,T-shirts or other garments that promote a candidate or party into a polling place. Violations should first be brought to the attention of the precinct captain employed by the municipality; if the captain fails to act, poll challenger's should alert the party's legal brain trust in Lansing.
Discretion is important: "Chance are my 87-year-old grandma is going to wear her Hillary button into the polling place," Fulton says, "and chances are nobody is going to stop her.
But precinct captains alerted to electioneering violations will typically prevail on voters to remove pins or turn an offending T-shirt inside out before heading to the voting booth, he says, especially in municipalities like Bloomfield Hills or Birmingham.
"If you're in a place like Pontiac or Detroit or Warren," he adds, "well, that's a little nastier."
Fulton tells volunteers they should count the number of voting machines in each precinct, make a note of each machine's serial number, and promptly report any malfunctions to the party's election lawyers.
It's also important that no one who gets in line after 8 p.m. is allowed to cast a ballot, he says. To guard against violations, he suggests that poll challengers invite the precinct captain and any other party's challenger to identify the last person in line at closing time and affix a paper "X" to the final voter's back.
Besides monitoring their polling places for fraud, Fulton says, volunteers will be asked to check off the names of those the party has identified as likely Republican voters as they appear to cast their ballots and report the results via a smart-phone app that links them to the party's state headquarters in Lansing. Republican-leaning voters who haven't appeared by 3 p.m on Election Day will be hounded by a second group of volunteers trained to get them to the polls by any lawful means necessary, a process known as poll flushing. (Democrats are doing this, too.)
Fulton tells the Oakland volunteers an efficient poll flushing operation can boost GOP turnout in a given precinct by more than 10%. He credits one particularly successful 11th-hour effort with Republican Holly Hughes' 53-vote victory incumbent state Rep. Collene Lamonte (D-Montague) in 2014.
"Poll flushing is my favorite thing about election season," Fulton says. "Poll flushing could save this election."
Everybody present is enthusiastic about the opportunity to save the election, but the mostly Baby Boomer crowd is a little nervous about downloading the smart-phone app successfully.
"Couldn't we just print out the lists and use paper?" one asks.
"This app has been stress-tested," Fulton replies, adding that he's available to help technologically-challenged anti-fraud volunteers get the party's proprietary software up and running. "Besides," he adds, "paper is so 1940s."
Falling short of fraud
When the training is over, I seek Dawley, the Rochester Hills volunteer who reported witnessing voter fraud within her first hour of poll-watching in Pontiac eight years ago.
She can't name the precinct, but her allegations are specific: She says she saw poll workers hand ballots to voters without asking them to show ID and noticed people wearing campaign buttons and candidate T-shirt inside the polling place unchallenged. She also remembers watching a Democratic activist instruct voters standing in line for voting machines on how to cast a straight-ticket vote for his party's candidates.
Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown, a Democrat, didn't take over from her Republican predecessor until 2013. But she says she's not aware of any instance in which a Pontiac resident ineligible to vote was permitted to do so, and adds that election workers throughout the county are trained to ask voters for identification.
(James O'Keefe, a Republican gadfly noted for his efforts to expose the electoral system's vulnerability to fraud, unsuccessfully attempted to impersonate me at my Oakland County polling place in this year's August primary election. O'Keefe told poll workers he had lost his identification but stopped short of signing an affidavit swearing he was Brian Dickerson, an act that would have subjected him to felony prosecution and imprisonment.)
Brown, who is running for re-election, conceded that the electioneering activities Dawley reported witnessing constitute violations of Michigan election law, but noted that neither would have disqualified anyone from voting.
"It's a violation, but it's not voter fraud," she explained.
A cure in search of a disease?
Like many Democrats, Brown is annoyed by some Republicans' obsession with a plague of voter fraud that appears to exist exclusively in Candidate Trump's imagination. "This was never a problem," she says, until the Republican presidential nominee began repeating, on an almost daily basis, allegations that appear to have no evidentiary foundation.
But I doubt that any Democratic voter will be intimidated by the doughty band of baby boomers I met at Fulton's seminar. Maybe their efforts to flush out Republican voters will actually encourage broader participation in next Tuesday's election -- or challenge their Democratic counterparts to elevate their own GOTV game.
Assuming, that is, that anyone can figure out how to download that stupid app.
(2016 © Detroit Free Press)