Alexandra Seely, a 27-year-old dental hygienist, had never been in court except to deal with a traffic ticket. Yet days after the presidential election, her name was near the top of a lawsuit alleging widespread vote fraud in Michigan — a lawsuit designed to alter the result of a presidential election.
In a handwritten affidavit, and during a subsequent interview with USA TODAY, Seely described what she saw the day after the election as she monitored vote counting in Detroit as a Republican challenger.
Seely said she’s convinced not just that there was vote fraud in Wayne County, but that an entire election was stolen — despite conclusions to the contrary by judges across the country, intelligence officials, Trump’s attorney general, independent observers and election supervisors in states red and blue.
Barr contradicts Trump: Attorney General Barr says DOJ has found no evidence of fraud to alter election outcome
That Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 4, election workers in a cavernous room at the TCF Center unloaded absentee ballots and fed them into machines. As more ballots were counted, Trump’s lead in Michigan shrank. Things were getting tense.
Seely said she was trying to monitor the count at Table 23. Ballots were brought out in nylon roller bags. A worker would pull one out and scan it, announcing the voter’s name and ballot number. When things matched, the ballot would go into a stack to be tallied.
Seely said she challenged about 10 votes, raising her hand when something “wasn’t right.” One person appeared to have voted twice, she said. At least five ballots wouldn’t scan.
Challenged ballots were supposed to be set aside, Seely said, but inspectors took them away and refused to register her objections on a log, instead claiming they took note on a computer. At one point, she said, an election worker profanely confronted her for getting too close.
In the days after the election, Trump’s allies and attorneys mobilized to stop the counting, delay certification of the results and challenge the legitimacy of ballots. People like Seely provided statements about what they saw, heard and suspected. These statements were the foundation upon which the lawsuits were built.
In Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia – all swing states – they swore they had witnessed poll workers filling out blank ballots, changing votes, processing and backdating flawed ballots, delivering suspicious trunks to counting rooms and blocking, ignoring or intimidating GOP monitors.
Many of those allegations crumbled under scrutiny. Their beliefs have not.
‘They said there was a bunch of stuff going on’
Those who submitted statements under penalty of perjury reflect a cross-section of America: blue- and white-collar workers, homemakers, retirees, students, military personnel. Their statements generally seem sincere and straightforward.
Jeffrey Gorman, 65, a retired airline pilot from Garden City, Michigan, said he raced to serve as a challenger in the TCF Center in Detroit after getting an email from Republican friends.
“They said there was a bunch of stuff going on,” he said, “and all of a sudden these votes showed up in the middle of the night.”
Taken together, their statements gave the impression of a dirty election nationwide. Judges across the country have been unmoved.
The Trump campaign and its allies have lost 40 lawsuits and won one that affected a few dozen votes, according to a running tally by Marc Elias, a Democratic elections expert and founder of Democracy Docket. At least eight more cases are pending.
But in the days after the election false narratives, rumors and claims about suspicious events echoed through an insular world of right-wing websites, news outlets and social media influencers. Among them were a few examples of actual wrongdoing or human error — a “stitching together of real, isolated incidents,” as Renee DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, described it.
Miami attorney Ibrahim Reyes, a Republican, drove 660 miles to Atlanta because he felt compelled to see the Georgia recount in person — and to prevent fraudulent ballots from being counted.
“Many people do what’s easier, which is perhaps to post a comment on social media,” Reyes said. “But that doesn’t help. We actually have to take action and get involved as American citizens.”
Leading up to Election Day, Trump’s campaign called for an “army” to watch over the voting. These were the foot soldiers.
Recruited to challenge ballots in Detroit
Andrew Sitto, a 26-year-old college business student from West Bloomfield, Michigan, couldn’t believe the chaos as he entered the TCF Center as a Republican challenger on Election Night.
“The room was jam-packed,” he said. “It looked like the stock exchange on the very worst day.”
Sitto, the son of Iraqi immigrants, said he’s active in politics because he lost two uncles in the war and a third to ISIS. He described himself as a staunch Trump supporter, in part because of the president’s focus on Iraq.
As the election neared, Sitto said, he got on a GOP email list and was recruited to do door-knocking for Trump. Later he got a message asking if he’d serve as a challenger.
Sitto arrived at the counting hall around 9:30 p.m. Nov. 3, ready for a long night. His 20-minute training consisted of a Trump victory video and another instructing him how and what to challenge.
He was assigned to watch workers duplicate ballots, a necessary and legal process for write-in ballots from military and overseas voters. About 4:30 a.m., a buddy noticed a van unloading at the dock. Sitto said he watched as ballots were removed from boxes.
Later, Sitto said, he saw workers filling out blank ballots. “I eye-witnessed an employee taking a pen and filling out the D (Democrat) straight ticket in the bubbles,” he said. (Michigan is one of several states that allow voters to choose all the candidates from a political party.) He said he saw this five times and tried to challenge it, but he was ignored.
Wednesday morning, after more than 12 hours of monitoring, Sitto walked outside and sat down, overcome with exhaustion. He started talking with John M. Downing Jr., a member of Lawyers for Trump who spent five days in Detroit recruiting and overseeing election challengers.
That’s how Sitto wound up signing a court affidavit. It says he heard that vehicles with out-of-state license plates delivered tranches of ballots around 4:30 a.m. “I specifically noticed that every ballot I observed was for Biden,” he said in his affidavit, referring to Democratic candidate and now President-elect Joe Biden.
He told USA TODAY he is convinced Trump lost due to widespread fraud. “If you were to put me on the stand, I would say yes.”
Elections expert: Challengers didn’t understand the process
In several lawsuits, the Trump campaign and allies provided more than 100 affidavits to support their allegations of election fraud and abuse in Michigan. In at least two cases, the city of Detroit responded with an affidavit from Christopher Thomas, an elections expert and a former head of elections for Michigan.
Thomas painstakingly addressed the allegations in one suit, concluding Republican challengers “do not understand absent voter ballot processing and tabulating.”
The judge agreed, writing, “Perhaps if Plaintiffs’ election challenger affiants had attended the October 29, 2020 walk-through of the TCF Center ballot counting location, questions and concerns could have been answered in advance of Election Day.
“Regrettably, they did not,” the judge wrote. “Plaintiffs’ interpretation of events is incorrect and not credible.”
A call to arms as Trump’s lead shrinks
Early in the morning on Nov. 4, the Livingston County Republican Party posted on Facebook that poll watchers were needed at the TCF Center, about an hour away. “35,000 ballots were suddenly found at 3:00 am in Detroit. We need YOU to help us defend the vote and help President Trump.”
The state Republican Party and conservative activists put out similar calls to monitor the Detroit counting after the alleged vote dump.
Conservative activist Charlie Kirk joined in, calling for Trump supporters to “swarm MI with more Trump Poll Watchers immediately!”
Seely had stayed up late on Election Night, growing ebullient as she watched the returns on a Fox News app. The president she revered was leading not just in Michigan, but other battleground states. It was going to be four more years.
She went to bed about 3 a.m. When she awoke, certain victory seemed to be slipping away.
“I thought, this is so weird. Something’s not right,” Seely recalled. “This is why people feel like their votes don’t matter.”
Ballots counted Tuesday night were mostly cast in person. It took longer to count the huge increase in mail and absentee ballots, which in many states went overwhelmingly for Biden.
Seely’s dad, director of the Trump campaign in Wayne County, called at 9 a.m. Wednesday to ask if she would help monitor counting of mail-in votes.
In 2016 her father, Matthew Seely, headed Trump’s campaign in neighboring Macomb County. Afterward, the president’s son, Eric, visited the Seely steel factory. “It was very exciting,” she recalled.
‘Stop the count!’
Seely got her credentials as an election challenger and went through a short training session provided by the Trump campaign. There was a brief questionnaire to ensure she knew the rules: Wear a mask, maintain social distance, no photographs, no talking to vote counters.
Then she entered the “gi-normous” hall where the ballots were being counted. The room contained 134 tables, each staffed by five vote counters, under the watch of several hundred Democrat, Republican and independent challengers.
Seely’s dad met her at the sign-in table. They were near some escalators when the first red flag went up: Seely noticed large backpacks and suitcases wrapped in clear plastic.
Her father asked a security guard about them, she recalled, and was told to walk away. When he asked again, Seely said, the guard cursed and ordered them to leave.
At Table 23, Seely’s suspicions grew as the day progressed. She alleged votes were counted even when names and ballot numbers didn’t match, or when tabulation machines detected errors.
Throughout the hall, mostly white Republican challengers escalated their complaints against predominately Black election workers.
‘Damaging to our democracy’: Trump election lawsuits targeted areas with large Black, Latino populations
Police escorted some monitors out of the hall. Those outside began banging on the windows, chanting, “Stop the count!” Election staffers taped cardboard over the glass to keep people from taking photos and videos.
Someone shot a video of the windows being covered. It was picked up by White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and in a Breitbart report, which the president tweeted and posted to Facebook. Trump’s post sharing that story was the link post in the U.S. with the most interactions on Facebook the day after the election.
In response to the Trump lawsuits in Michigan, lawyers for the Democrat Party submitted affidavits describing a starkly different narrative than Republicans’. “The only improprieties I saw were from Republican challengers,” Joseph Zimmerman, a law student who served as an independent challenger at the TCF Center, declared under oath.
He said GOP challengers were “aggressive and intimidating,” sometimes surrounding vote counters and badgering them.
Around 2 p.m., Zimmerman alleged, news spread through the hall that Biden had been declared the winner in Wisconsin, with Michigan poised to follow. Moments later, word spread via social media that the Trump campaign had filed a lawsuit to block the counting in Wayne County. (In fact, the suit had not yet been filed.)
Zimmerman said Republicans inside the hall started challenging every vote based on “pending litigation.” One of them began to shout, “Stop the count!” and those outside the room picked up the chorus.
“As a veteran, I was particularly shocked that Republicans tried to stop the count of military ballots,” noted Zimmerman, who served in the Air Force. “I do not understand how people can be so tied up in who they want to be elected so much that they would be willing to harass poll workers. … It broke my heart.”
Decision to join lawsuit was no-brainer
In the aftermath, Seely said, she was asked to meet lawyers for the Republican Party and invited to join her dad as a plaintiff in the case. The decision was a no-brainer “because I don’t want to ever see this happen again.”
Like Sitto, Seely believes there was fraud in Wayne County’s vote count, and the national presidential outcome was stolen. At one point inside the TCF Center, Seely recalled, someone blurted that a message had appeared on one of the vote-counting monitors: “This computer is being hacked.”
A national coalition of election security officials described the election as “the most secure in American history,” and Thomas said in his affidavit that none of the computers in the TCF Center were connected to the internet.
Seely said she had heard about an incident in Shiawassee County in which every vote tallied during one batch was for Biden. The culprit, it turned out, was a typographical error in which an extra zero was added to Biden’s total.
Trump himself amplified that claim, tweeting, “WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT?”
According to Zignal Labs, a media intelligence firm, mentions of missing or “magically found ballots” spiked across the U.S. the morning after the election. From Nov. 3 to Nov. 9, the topic was mentioned over 375,000 times.
The notion that the election was “rigged” — and the desire to combat it — did not come out of nowhere, said Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the nonpartisan Wilson Center.
“It was a narrative that was laid very carefully in the months leading up to the election,” she said.
In any U.S. election, there are going to be small-scale incidents in which something goes wrong, DiResta said.
“Nine ballots in a garbage can is not going to flip the election back or mean there was massive fraud,” DiResta said. But it does help create “the perception that our process for voting is broken.”
“This is not a thing that only stupid people fall to prey to,” she said. “People seek out information that confirms their beliefs or more heavily weight the information that confirms their beliefs.”
The Trump campaign ultimately dropped the Michigan lawsuit in which Seely was a plaintiff.
‘Pristine’ ballots raise eyebrows in Georgia
In Georgia, attorney Lin Wood launched an effort in federal court to halt the certification of the state’s election results, which showed Biden narrowly won. The key evidence: 18 affidavits from witnesses alleging fraud.
Suzi Voyles, who said she served over two decades as a Fulton County poll manager, was one of them and the only witness who testified in court. She told USA TODAY she felt compelled to expose what she saw during voting and the subsequent audit.
Voyles said she observed a box of 800 suspicious ballots, mostly for Biden, during the hand audit Nov. 14. The voting cards were “pristine,” she said, with no folds or bent edges. They were “unusually uniform,” she said in her affidavit — which she believed was a sign they were fraudulent.
“They were absolutely, starkly different than the rest,” Voyles said in an interview. “Some of the (filled-in) bubbles looked exactly the same on every ballot.”
She said she complained to county and state officials, and an attorney friend connected her with Wood so she could submit her concerns in court as a sworn statement. “This allowed me to record something at a higher level rather than just complaining to my friends. It was time for me to step up,” Voyles said.
“Too many people are bystanders,” she said. “This isn’t a game; it’s about our republic and knowing precisely what our founders envisioned.”
‘Fantastic claims, half-truths, misinformation’: Georgia official says Trump supporters misled
Voyles said she expects to lose her position as a poll manager now that she’s a “whistleblower,” as she put it. Though she’s a Republican activist, she said she was motivated by her concern for election integrity.
“I felt as a citizen concerned about free and fair elections that if I did not say something, that not only challenged the integrity of my vote, but every other voter in the state of Georgia,” Voyles said. “We can’t afford to have people lose faith in our voting process
In a Nov. 19 court filing, attorneys for Georgia’s secretary of state said allegations in the Wood lawsuit were “legally unsupportable efforts to trigger a constitutional crisis and overturn the election results, based upon nothing more than … personal dissatisfaction with the outcome.”
The Georgia lawsuit, like most others, failed in court. Since the November hearing, a YouTube video of Voyles describing what she saw has amassed 350,000 views.
Two and a half weeks after the election, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, certified the state’s election results after a hand-count audit. The Trump campaign requested a recount, which was scheduled to be finished Wednesday night.
Observers claim they can’t get close enough in Pennsylvania
In Philadelphia, Trump and his campaign assailed election officials for allegedly blocking the view of Republicans watching the ballot processing.
Jeremy Mercer, a partner in the Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP law firm that represented Trump’s campaign before withdrawing, also served as a witness to the processing of mail-in and absentee ballots.
During a Philadelphia news conference with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Nov. 4, Mercer said workers handling ballots were kept “hundreds, at least a hundred feet out of our sight. … We’re supposed to be observing, but we can’t see.”
He provided a somewhat different account in court. Mercer testified that he watched ballot processing at the Philadelphia Convention Center on Election Day, remaining until late at night. Officials erected a waist-high fence to minimize coronavirus risk, but monitors could move freely along it and observe some of the processing, he said.
According to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling, Mercer testified his vantage point was close enough to discern whether envelopes contained ballots that had been improperly returned.
The state’s high court struck down Trump’s lawsuit, concluding that while Pennsylvania election law says campaign representatives can “remain in the room” where ballots are processed, they don’t specify a minimum distance to the processing.
Sharpie markers play into doubts in Arizona
In Goodyear, Arizona, on the outskirts of Phoenix, Clint Jamison and his wife showed up to vote on Election Day with their five kids, ages 4 months to 9 years. They stood in line wearing masks, got their IDs scanned and were handed Sharpie pens to mark their ballots.
Jamison said his wife voted without a hitch. But when he placed his ballot in the machine to be counted, it was spit out due to a stray mark in a judge’s race.
The poll worker offered three options: He could submit his ballot for a hand count, start over with a new ballot, or process the flawed one knowing his vote in that race wouldn’t be tallied.
Jamison, trying to deal with five children, chose the last one. He resubmitted the ballot, a worker pressed a green button on the machine, and he left.
It was only afterward, amid rumors of an Arizona election fraud dubbed “Sharpiegate,” that Jamison began to wonder whether his votes were counted.
The conspiracy theory appears to have gained traction late on Nov. 3 when a Facebook user posted a video with the caption, “Tonight’s voting shenanigans.” A woman on camera explains that ballots for two voters were rejected because of blotches caused by Sharpie markers. The person recording the video says, “That way those votes aren’t counted.”
The video, which is now marked as “false information,” racked up more 29,000 interactions. As it spread, Trump’s campaign issued a news release asking Arizona voters and poll workers to report election problems to a site called “DontTouchtheGreenButton.com.”
Several poll workers told The Arizona Republic they heard concerns about Sharpies all day. The state Attorney General’s Office said it received more than 1,000 complaints about them.
However, election officials in Maricopa County, where many of the concerns were centered, said Sharpies are the preferred instrument for marking ballots because they don’t smear. State officials have dismissed claims that voters were disenfranchised by using Sharpies.
Still, Sharpiegate reached the highest levels of conservative social media, with more than 405,000 mentions, according to Zignal Labs. Among them: Eric Trump and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who called a fact-check debunking the theory “propaganda.”
The Sharpiegate video, DiResta said, served as a way for Trump’s supporters to explain an inconceivable loss and vent outrage. The simplicity made it credible: Poll workers handing out Sharpies is “not a wild, outrageous thing like CIA supercomputers changing votes,” she said. “You don’t have to be a wild conspiracy theorist” to believe something happened.
By Nov. 4, demonstrators were outside the Maricopa County vote tabulation center, holding signs reading “Count every vote” — the opposite of what Trump supporters chanted in Detroit. They were joined the next day by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, solidifying the event as an icon of the 2020 elections.
Jamison became so concerned his vote for president hadn’t been counted that he tried to call election officials. He couldn’t get through, so he went to a Republican website, filled out a form, and wound up working with an attorney to complete an affidavit for a lawsuit.
When Trump’s lawyers filed suit against state and county elections officials in Arizona, they initially claimed thousands of votes for president went unrecorded because of election mistakes and misconduct.
In court papers, Trump’s lawyers sought to enter hundreds of unsigned affidavits as evidence, even after conceding their online invitation had attracted false claims and spam, according to the legal news site Law & Crime.
Lawyers for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs responded in a brief: “These self-serving ‘declarations’ were marshalled by a political campaign that primed the pump about alleged ‘widespread problems.’ There is no evidence that those filling out the forms even voted, let alone witnessed any errors or wrongdoing.”
A judge agreed, ruling out the unsigned affidavits.
In court, GOP lawyers offered no evidence that election errors were systematic or that Trump supporters were targeted. Witnesses acknowledged they did not know whether their presidential votes went uncounted.
Proof? ‘I’m going to surmise it’
Edward Balko, 62, a self-described computer expert, claimed in an affidavit that he witnessed or detected multiple irregularities when he voted at a Sheraton Hotel in Phoenix.
In an interview, Balko said he believes the election was stolen because there is no other explanation for what he saw as Biden’s impossible comeback after Trump held a substantial lead.
He recalled watching news coverage Nov. 4 and thinking, “This isn’t right. How are these dead people voting?” Media have debunked such claims, interviewing people who were supposedly dead.
Balko said he was given a Sharpie to mark his ballot but chose to use his own pen. A tabulation machine nevertheless rejected his ballot. The poll worker simply inserted it again and gave him an “I Voted” sticker.
Balko said he checked an online dashboard and discovered that, as of Nov. 20, “My vote has yet to be counted.”
He claimed there’s a pattern in fraud complaints across the country, saying he researched Maricopa County’s voting machines and concluded they were improperly linked to outside computers. National intelligence officials have said there’s no evidence voting systems were compromised.
Asked for proof, he said, “I’m going to surmise it.”
But he knows some of the things he speaks of didn’t happen. Balko mentioned a Michigan video that went viral on social media, purportedly showing a trunk full of ballots rolling into the TCF Center. When told the case contained video equipment, he acknowledged the fraud allegation had been debunked.
Balko said he reported his election experiences and suspicions to a Republican website, then got together with an attorney and supplied an affidavit.
In a court hearing, several affiants testified about their fears or suspicions, rather than proof. According to Law & Crime, a woman named Mia Barcello was asked under oath if she had “any basis to believe your vote wasn’t counted?”
Her answer: “I’m not sure. … No.”
Others responded similarly. Laura Christians, 30, an affiant who does clinical research on drugs and medical devices, told USA TODAY she was not allowed to vote in secret and her ballot was rejected by the voting machine.
Christians, who voted for Trump, said a poll worker simply resubmitted the ballot and pressed a green button without explaining what was happening. Christians’ father, who worked at polls for more than three decades, told her the worker should have explained her options without touching the ballot.
With that information, Christians reported her experience to a Republican website and wound up signing an affidavit.
Asked if she was a victim of election fraud, Christians said, “I don’t know. … I very well could have been.”
Trump lawyer points to errors, not fraud
Amid testimony, Republican allegations of a stolen election in Arizona evaporated. Kory Langhofer, an attorney for Trump’s campaign, told a judge that plaintiffs were “not alleging fraud,” but merely identifying concerns about “good faith errors.”
Arizona election officials pointed out that, amid more than 2 million ballots cast in Maricopa County, fewer than 200 registered an error for the presidential race. Biden defeated Trump in Arizona by about 10,500 votes.
In a motion to dismiss the case, Roopali Desai, an attorney for the Secretary of State’s Office, argued the lawsuit was filed “solely to sow confusion and undermine the democratic process.”
The judge ultimately dismissed the lawsuit after Langhofer acknowledged that Biden won Arizona regardless of any perceived tabulation errors.
But Jamison still doesn’t know if his votes counted, or if the election was rigged. “There’s a lot of things that seem off about the numbers,” he said.
“Is it mass vote fraud?” he said. “If I had to lean, I’d say, yes, it seems like it. I don’t think Biden won.”
Contributing: Ashley Nerbovig, Detroit Free Press (with support from the American Press Institute)