Wherever absentee ballots are being counted, there are officially appointed watchdogs — Republicans, Democrats, impartial observers — whose job is make sure that the tally is on the straight and narrow. But accounts of a dramatic episode in Detroit on Wednesday suggest that there, at least, the system of checks and balances went off the rails.
Election workers stationed at 134 counting tables in the city’s convention hall, the TCF Center, began the day fielding occasional complaints from Republican observers that suspicious signatures and other potential flaws merited setting some ballots aside for scrutiny. That is not unusual; the basic task of election observers is to ensure that the opposition does not have its thumb on the electoral scales.
But by midafternoon, word filtered into the hall that the Trump campaign had filed lawsuits contesting the legitimacy of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s emerging lead in Michigan. And inside the hall, people who were there say, the behavior of Republican observers abruptly shifted.
“I was walking around and I heard their supervisor say, ‘OK, now we’re going to challenge every ballot,’” Julie Moroney, a University of Michigan law student who was a nonpartisan observer of the count, said in an interview on Friday. (An earlier version of this post misspelled her last name.) “‘Say, I assert my challenge to this ballot; I assert my challenge to this ballot.’”
Those instructions, she and others said, ground ballot processing to a crawl, as election workers summoned supervisors to settle disputes and Republican and Democratic observers alike scribbled down ballot numbers and other details that might prove useful in court battles over the ballots’ legitimacy.
As the delay dragged on, Ms. Moroney and others said, fatigued poll workers became angry, accusing the Republican observers of trying to obstruct the count. Ms. Moroney and others said some challengers were ejected from the counting room, drawing loud cheers from others in the hall.
“There were probably two or three hours where there was an uncomfortable situation,” said Brian Remlinger, another Michigan law student and observer. The resulting delay “ratcheted up tension in the room” and pushed the end of counting into the evening.
Ms. Moroney, who recounted the experience on Twitter, said she found the confrontations distressing. “They weren’t there to challenge; they were there to suppress,” she said.
Ms. Moroney and Mr. Remlinger said election workers in the counting room did a remarkable job amid the hostility. “This was the first real test of the process,” Mr. Remlinger said, “and it was deeply impressive how it was handled. They did their jobs.”