By Tresa Baldas, Kathleen Gray and Frank Witsil
After two days of ballot counting, conflicting court decisions and legal wranglings between frustrated lawyers, a federal judge on Wednesday halted the hand recount of 4.8 million ballots cast for president in Michigan, concluding there's no real evidence of foul play and there's no valid reason to continue the recount.
In his eight-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith said "there is no basis" for him to ignore a state court ruling that said the recount should never had started. He was referring to the Michigan Court of Appeals 3-0 ruling, which said that Green Party Candidate Jill Stein, who requested the recount, never had a shot at winning with her fourth-place finish and 1% of the vote, and therefore was not an aggrieved candidate.
Goldsmith's ruling also bolstered some arguments that were repeatedly made by the Michigan Republican Party: that there was never any evidence that hacking or fraud occurred at the polls, and that Michigan's voting system is so secure that not even the "Gremlins, Martians or Russian hackers" could tamper with it. That argument appeared to carry some weight with the judge.
"To date, plaintiffs have not presented evidence of tampering or mistake. Instead, they present speculative claims going to the vulnerability of the voting machinery -- but not actual injury," Goldsmith wrote, adding the potential for fraud is not enough to continue to allow the recount to proceed.
The Republican Party also apparently convinced Goldsmith that the recount would have cost taxpayers too much money -- $5 million by one count -- if his comments are any indication.
"It is at least arguable that the Michigan Legislature intended to confine costly and disruptive recounts to cases where a losing candidate stood a reasonable chance of changing the outcome of the election," Goldsmith wrote.
Goldsmith did, however, note that Stein raised "serious" issues.
"The vulnerability of our system of voting poses the threat of a potentially devastating attack on the integrity of our election system," Goldsmith wrote, stressing that a potential threat alone does not justify a recount.
Stein's lawyers vowed an appeal, noting one has already been made with the Michigan Supreme Court.
Stein's recount request questioned 75,000 ballots, on which Michigan voters did not vote for anyone for president. This was almost double the amount of Michigan ballots with no presidential votes in 2012, which raised suspicions, Stein's lawyers said.
"We are deeply disappointed in Judge Goldsmith's ruling today, which gives deference to partisan state judges in Michigan who are attempting to block the state's recount simply because of the person who made the request, without regard for the integrity of Michigan's electoral system," Stein's lawyers, Hayley Horowitz and Jessica Clarke said in a statement.
"The history of this country is one where federal courts step in to protect the constitutional voting rights of all Americans, especially when they are under attack in the states. Well today, they are under brutal attack. Backed by Michigan Republicans, Donald Trump -- who himself has repeatedly alleged widespread voter fraud and a 'rigged election' -- suddenly sees no need for a routine verification of the democratic process in Michigan. His efforts to suppress the vote count is a stunning about-face, even by Trump's own standards."
In Michigan, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 10,704 votes.
"By stopping the recount in Michigan, Trump and Michigan Republicans are explicitly stripping the constitutional rights of Michigan voters straight from under them. Worse, they are continuing to undermine confidence in the American political system by denying voters a chance to be reassured that the election results were accurate ... But make no mistake, we are not backing down from this fight."
Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ronna Romney McDaniel praised the ruling as a "victory for the taxpayers and voters of Michigan who can be assured that their vote will count when the state's electors meet on December 19th."
"The courts have affirmed the stance the campaign has maintained from day one: Jill Stein, who received only 1.07% of the vote in Michigan, is not legally entitled to hijack the will of voters and drag them into an arduous and expensive publicity stunt," McDaniel said. "Jill Stein's 1% temper tantrum cost Michigan taxpayers millions of dollars and would have cost them additional millions of dollars if not for the actions of President-elect Trump, the Michigan Republican Party, and Attorney General Bill Schuette."
In a hearing before Goldsmith, Stein's lawyers argued Wednesday that the recount must continue, stressing that the recount thus far has shown numerous voting problems across the state, particularly in Detroit, where more than half of the precincts' ballots cannot be recounted due to problems that have not been disclosed. They also argued that Stein is an aggrieved party if she participated in an election that was plagued with mistakes or fraud -- even if she didn't stand to win. And the voters of Michigan have a right to know that, too, they said.
"There is no way of knowing whether fraud occurred without conducting the recount," Stein's attorney, Hayley Horowitz, told Goldsmith during the hearing, arguing it is "way to early" to know if fraud was an issue.
After the hearing, Stein told the Free Press that so far, the recount appears to be exposing problems with Michigan's election process, particularly in low-income, minority communities.
"It is revealing some really troubling aspects of how elections are run here," Horowitz said of the recount. "We think that's part of the reason the recount should continue -- to continue revealing those problems so that the people of Michigan can see how their election operates."
The Michigan Republican Party and Michigan Attorney General's office repeatedly argued to Goldsmith that the recount was not warranted. Both stressed that a state appellate court had already decided the issue, and that Goldsmith should respect that 3-0 decision and halt the recount, which started Monday under an order from Goldsmith.
"Her entire purpose is to audit the Michigan system," John Bursch, of the Michigan Attorney General's office, said of Stein in court. He urged the judge numerous times to halt the recount and not stick Michigan taxpayers with a potentially $5 million recount tab for a candidate who has no chance of winning.
"Don't become the first federal court in the country to order a recount ... for a candidate who lost by 2 million votes," Bursch said.
Attorney Gary Gordon, who represents the Michigan Republican Party, also urged Goldsmith to stop the recount.
"This candidate is not aggrieved in any sense of the word," Gordon said of Stein, stressing: "It's very unlikely that two million mistakes have been made."
Meanwhile, the Michigan Board of State Canvassers met in Lansing today.
Last Friday, the board deadlocked 2-2 on Trump's objection to Stein's request for a recount, which allowed the hand recount to move forward. But the Michigan Court of Appeals said the board erred in its decision. Goldsmith upheld that finding.
The board of state canvassers has previously noted that Michigan's electors already have been certified and their names have been sent to Washington.
In addition to Michigan, Stein is also seeking recounts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania -- battleground states that have voted Democratic in recent elections but shifted to Republican in 2016. If recounts resulted in all three states flipping to Democrat Hillary Clinton from Trump, Clinton would win the presidency.
Stein has said she doesn't expect to change the election outcome, but wants to test the integrity of voting systems.
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press