It was an unprecedented scene in American history. As news coverage across the nation turned its focus to the TCF Center in Detroit on election night 2020, weary poll workers counted votes under stress while angry protestors pounded on the glass windows of the city’s major convention center. Absentee ballots continued to file in for counting through the early hours of the next morning after Election Tuesday, leading to unsubstantiated rumors of alleged fraud spreading across a sea of Republican challengers inside the count room.
As then President-elect Joe Biden began to take the lead in Michigan, rhetoric of election fraud emerged from former President Donald Trump’s camp, spurring on election challengers and protestors at the TCF Center into action. Challengers circled poll worker’s tables to chant, “Stop the Count,” before being escorted out by police and claiming a lack of representation.
Tensions rose outside the count room where Democratic and Republican challengers protested to get back inside. At the same time, a frenzy of misinformation began to spread across social media. Could protesting the results of the election have led to the attack at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6? Detroit Free Press reporters and video journalists take us inside the TCF Center on election night to provide unparalleled coverage of our democracy on the verge of chaos.
Anjanette Delgado, Senior News Director for Digital, Detroit Free Press: Everyone was expecting things to start out red and then turn blue sort of overnight as we started getting in other votes from different areas.
PBS Newshour: Let’s look at Michigan right now with about a third of the expected vote and the president is ahead in Michigan.
Anjanette Delgado: If you’re not super familiar with the process…
PBS Newshour: So it’s going to be a kind of back and forth…
Anjanette Delgado: So you go to bed Tuesday night and everything looks good for Trump and you wake up the next morning and-and things are looking better for Joe Biden.
CNN News: This is five a.m., one more. Michigan as well.
James G. Hill, Senior News Director, Detroit Free Press: Trump was saying, ‘Well, this had to be fraud because, you know, at 10:30, we were ahead by 100,000 votes and then by 2:00 o’clock in the morning now, all of a sudden, we’re behind by 100,000 votes.’.
Stopworldcontrol via Rumble: And we’re just getting this. These are people bringing them in in coolers. There’s no one around.
Anjanette Delgado: We started seeing evidence online that these were magic votes, you know, that somebody showed up somewhere with a whole bunch of blue votes.
Kellye Sorelle/Texas Scorecard: Looks like one of those lock boxes. I wish I could tell.
Clara Hendrickson, Report for America, Detroit Free Press: Yeah, there were a number of viral images and videos purporting to show mysterious suitcases and wagons being brought into the TCF Center carrying ballots. So one of them actually turned out to be a WXYZ photographer carrying in his camera equipment.
Kellye Sorelle/Texas Scorecard: Think all the polling places were closed. And yet we have a box…
Anjanette Delgado: All of this happened where people felt like, you know, something happened in the dead of night.
Clara Hendrickson: There were thousands of ballots that arrived at the TCF Center early in the morning on Wednesday, November 4th.
Freeearthrepublic via Bitchute: All right. Could you please state your name? My name is Shane Trejo. What days this year were you involved with the election? I serve as a poll challenger on the night shift after the election. It concluded, so I was there at TCF as poll challenger. The ballots showed up at the dead of night at 3:30 a.m.
One America News Network: Sixty-one boxes of mystery ballots show up from the city clerk’s office. There was no chain of custody, no transparency, no accountability. No one would answer any questions about where they came from. And in my opinion, this was when they started the-the vote steal and to-to take this away from President Trump.
Clara Hendrickson: Early in the morning on Wednesday, November 4th, far from being a sign of anything nefarious, it’s actually a sign of the system working as intended. Election officials had warned that it was going to take a while for all of the ballot verification steps to be completed.
James G. Hill: If you don’t understand how their process works, then it’s easy for somebody to say, ‘oh, I saw a van pull up in the middle of the night and unload a bunch of boxes’ and you to be like, ‘ah, see? There was something going on there.’ Even if, you know, there’s nothing nefarious about it, that’s just the process.
Detroit Free Press Live on Facebook November 4, 2020: Let’s see. That’s where we’re at, folks. All right. Yeah. Yes, I am Tresa Baldas. I’m a reporter at the Detroit Free Press and I am reporting live from the TCF Center behind me. As I said, where they are counting the city of Detroit has 25,000 absentee ballots that are still being counted. They anticipate that this will be counted by the end of the night. Also, 96 percent of the votes in Michigan have been counted now.
Tresa Baldas, Reporter, Detroit Free Press: That night, actually it started the day when they said, ‘you know, you keep hearing this call, get to the TCF, get to the TCF.’
Tresa Baldas: (reporting live) We are witnessing what everyone expected to be a historic vote count…
Anjanette Delgado: And this was intense. I mean, election day became election week became, and we were prepared for it to be election week. It became election month.
James G. Hill: That was one of the biggest epiphanies I had after the 2020 election was just how many people needed to go back to civics class and understand how an election works and how it rhymes. Because for most people, it’s just one of those things that happens behind closed doors. It’s the sausage making, and all they know is they go, pick it out and then they cook it and eat it.
Tresa Baldas: (reporting live) All eyes are on the city of Detroit, as the Biden campaign hopes and has counted on the largely African-American vote in Detroit to pull Biden through…
James G. Hill: The reporters are down there, they’re watching it because no one’s ever seen anything like this. You know, this is all new for everyone, quite frankly. But I’ve covered lots of presidential campaigns, and this was just something that was unprecedented.
Kathleen Gray, Reporter, Detroit Free Press/New York Times 2020: As the presidential campaign started to ramp up, you had President Trump saying, ‘you know, the only way I’m going to lose to this guy is if the election is stolen. If the election is rigged.’
Donald Trump, Former United States President: And the ballots are out of control. You know it. And you know who knows it better than anybody else? The Democrats know it better than anybody else could.
Kathleen Gray: That idea was kind of baked in even before they started counting the votes.
James G. Hill: The pandemic kept a lot of people from going to the polls personally. And then, of course, you had Donald Trump encouraging his supporters, ‘no, don’t vote absentee, go to the polls.’ And so those two dynamics were playing out on election night.
Tresa Baldas: (reporting live) We also had a record turnout in Detroit, the most in 20 years, even from the Obama presidency, a 55 percent voter turnout.
David Boucher, Government and Politics Reporter, Detroit Free Press: I think anybody that’s watched Michigan politics for more than like a week understands that Detroit is a Democratic hotspot. There are not hundreds of thousands of Republican votes to get out of Detroit. Wayne County hasn’t gone for a Republican president since Herbert Hoover in the 20s. Nobody in Michigan watching politics thought that Donald Trump had any chance to do anything in Detroit or in Wayne County. And yet almost the entirety of the focus of alleged fraud in Michigan focused on TCF Center, where only ballots in Detroit were being counted. Not in Wayne County, just in Detroit.
Kathleen Gray: I remember an email going out to conservative activists saying, ‘you’ve got to get down to Detroit. There’s something happening down there.’
Clara Hendrickson: There were messages spreading around in Republican circles to go storm TCF Center because Biden was pulling ahead of Trump and to observe the count and make sure that nothing nefarious was happening in Detroit.
Kathleen Gray: And all of a sudden, just this crowd of people starting to just merge onto the scene there.
Tresa Baldas: That day started out-I mean, it was crazy. I went in there and-and I was shocked at how easy we could get in. And they had a spot designated for the media. We were all standing, you know, there were more than 100 of us. National media was in and a corner.
Detroit Free Press Live on Facebook: Using a long lens because we are behind this orange tape line…
Mandi Wright, Staff Photographer, Detroit Free Press: We’re really far back from the counting, and we’re not there to distract. But it is harder to cover in a granular way. And so we really just wanted people to be part of watching this vote count.
Detroit Free Press Live on Facebook November 4, 2020: We’re staying live just ahead. You the public, our readers, our viewers, our subscribers. Keep an eye on the process here.
Tresa Baldas: But there’s this massive room with tables and people are all counting the ballots, but just roaming freely on the floor were all these challengers, hundreds of them.
Tresa Baldas: (reporting live) Where are you from?
Person: Oh, I’m from Down River. I’m here because of the 38,000 ballots that arrived here at 3:45 a.m. They’re just now sitting over there and getting counted supposedly. And that’s why I arrived…
Tresa Baldas: And I didn’t quite process that ‘wait, these people are just regular normal people off the street who walked in here, presented a badge with whatever party they were with and said, ‘I’m a challenger.’ There was no security to go through, no metal detectors. Anybody could have gone in with anything and it was a little bit nerve wracking. So finally, I stood at this table and I said to the woman, “what are you doing?” She said “I’m checking in people as they come in.”
So I decide to stand there and count them as they came in, you know, and then the numbers are going up and up and up and up. The craziest they got were in the middle of folks counting the ballots. You’d get a big group of Republican challengers that would form a circle around one table.
Tresa Baldas: (reporting live) There’s some chanting going on… And they’d start chanting, “stop the count, stop the count.” And clapping as they did it. And as you can see right now, we’ve got several police officers heading out there on the floor. And the police would come in, they’d escort them out.
Mandi Wright: The number of Republican vote watchers were removed from the hall. And so a group of angry protesters came down and started banging on the windows of the basement of, you know, where we were at.
Tresa Baldas: And then you’d have people complaining we got kicked out of the process. Well, you were chanting in the middle of the floor and causing a scene.
Person in video: I want all the Republican challengers out of this room…
Tresa Baldas: A lot of conspiracy theories that were being thrown at us, and there was also a directive from folks who said challenge everything, challenge every ballot and they were doing it, they were like, you know, well, this doesn’t look good because of this or because of that. And at some point, you know, someone had to step in and say enough.
David Boucher: So all of this fervor is kind of coming up around Detroit and focusing on Detroit, obviously a democratic apparatus and supposedly, you know, part of this cabal to undermine the election. And so this is happening. Lawsuits are starting to come out. Lawsuits that have national resonance are being filed in Michigan.
CBS News: The campaign says it has, quote “not been provided with meaningful access to numerous counting locations to observe the opening of ballots and the counting process as guaranteed by Michigan law.” Now it’s asking the state’s court of claims to stop counting ballots until quote “meaningful access” has been granted.
Tresa Baldas: (reporting live) I’ve been trying to talk to some of these challengers who are out here. Some of them are very skittish about talking, but what we are learning is that the people who are getting thrown out and several have been now escorted out of here, what they are doing is one of the following: they either are getting too close or they’re going up behind people and they’re saying things like, ‘listen, I’m challenging this ballot, there’s litigation.
I’m challenging this ballot because litigation.’ They keep citing that there’s litigation out there. Well, there are lawyers working at these tables, and they will look at these challengers and say, ‘you know what? It doesn’t matter if there’s litigation out there. This ballot is being counted.
Sharon Dolente, Non-Partisan Poll Challenger, ACLU: There is wall-to-wall people in here. Nothing is being obscured about this process. We are all watching it, we are observing it. The citizens of Michigan and the media.
Mandi Wright: (reporting live) I’m Mandi Wright with the Detroit Free Press. I’m outside of the TCF absentee ballot counting and there are several poll watchers who are really disgruntled right now.
Tresa Baldas: So the next thing you know, you see more police presence and they decide that the room is getting too filled…
Person: We are at capacity now so that they can count down and let some people in. But they’re-OK, so ladies and gentleman I need you just to step back a little bit. Thank you. Make a hole so people can come in and out of the building, emergency personnel…
Tresa Baldas: Behind this glass doors and a glass wall. They were telling people, We’re-we’re closing down the room. You can’t come back in.
Sommer Woods: At this point, we have 100-we have 134 spots for each group. 134 Republican partisans, 134 Democratic partisans, 134 non-partisans. That is the max. Okay?
Mandi Wright: Sommer Woods, she was the person who was in charge of maintaining order inside the hall. Keeping it fair and square in terms of who was at each table watching these vote counters.
Sommer Woods: So at this point, we are not letting any more affiliations to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. And we only have spots for about 52 more people in nonpartisanship groups.
Person: What about the people who did not sign out (inaudible)…everybody stop…
Mandi Wright: She tried to calm the crowd down by talking very specifically about what was happening and who was allowed in and who wasn’t. And we’re also dealing with COVID too. So it was also like balancing the safety numbers too.
Sommer Woods: I need for you, hold on, hold on…
Tresa Baldas: Well, people started to lose their minds.
Person: You don’t know what a socialist country is!
Tresa Baldas: Screaming, you know, ‘we’re-we’re not being allowed to witness this process.’
Sommer Woods: If you are not with the nonpartisan…
Tresa Baldas: And she yelled, “everybody back up…”
Sommer Woods: Back up, off the door. (Inaudible) So if you are Republican or Democrats back up off the door. (Inaudible) Only non-partisan at this point.
Person: You never told people to sign out, so you don’t know how many are in there. I got you. That is a lie.
Person: Our job here is to do nothing but make sure the name that’s on the ballot is the name that’s on the poll book. That’s all we’re here for, and we’re being blocked from doing our function. Excuse me? They do, but they don’t have one at every precinct, and I’ve heard it said many times: as a Republican leaves, they’re not replacing them with another Republican. They’re stopping us from having fair representation at each table.
Tresa Baldas: (reporting live) You have a flood of Republican challengers who were here earlier who stepped out either to get lunch or to go to the bathroom and now they can’t go back in. So they’re frustrated, which is-which is understandable, but security is coming out and saying, ‘listen, we-we-we’re at capacity. You’re stuck out here.’.
Person: As they’re coming out, we try to go in and they say, ‘sorry, we’re at capacity,’ which everybody knows it’s like a five out, five can go in. I mean, anyone who’s been at Somerset Mall recently knows that’s how it works. Five people come out, five people go in.
Tresa Baldas: (reporting live) Are you concerned that something’s going wrong then, or do you feel the process is working?
Person: I’m a Democratic representative. I can’t get in either. And I was there this morning. And I’m a lawyer and I can’t get in.
Tresa Baldas: Each side is only allowed 134 challengers in the room. Right now, both-both parties have more than 200. I think the Democrats had 268. And the Republicans had 230 and the non-partisans had like 75, so they could have more people in there.
Clara Hendrickson: The number of challengers in the room far exceeded the allowed limit under state election law.
Person: We’re certified poll challengers, and they’re not letting us in.
Person: What are they telling you?
Person: They’re telling us that they’re not letting anyone else in, but media and lawyers.
Reporter, Fox News: Just on the other side of those windows there have been pounding on the windows, at one point saying ‘stop the count.’ Their objection right now is saying that there’s various violations going on.
Tresa Baldas: And then you had one of the Fox News reporters who was there live on the floor next to me, you know, not checking them. I’m not saying, no, actually, they’re here right now. I can watch them. I can see them.
Reporter, Fox News: We haven’t seen any of that. We cannot independently confirm that. But the allegation is that these poll challengers-these challengers on the Republican side are not being allowed in to observe the counting process while the Democrats are. Again, we cannot confirm that.
Tresa Baldas: I wanted to jump in the live shot and say, ‘what the hell are you talking about? You know they’re right here,’ but of course I can’t, as that’s their show, and I couldn’t wait to just set that record straight.
Mandi Wright: There was some misinformation that was really becoming now a part of a bigger conspiracy that somehow things were not operating properly in the TCF.
Tresa Baldas: People were not only banging on the windows, but they were taking their phones and they were videotaping the counters as they were counting the ballots. Well, a. that’s not allowed and b. it was intrusive and bothersome. So the ballot counters said, ‘listen, these folks outside the windows are videotaping me.’ So they taped up the windows.
Donald Trump: One major hub for counting ballots in Detroit covered up the windows again with large pieces of cardboard.
Tresa Baldas: It riled people up for sure, because all of a sudden, you know, in the mind of somebody who thinks that they’re already being shut out of a process, you put up a piece of paper so they can’t see it, they’re gonna go like ‘aha, they’re hiding something.’
Donald Trump: And so they wanted to protect and block the counting area. They didn’t want anybody seeing the count, even though these were observers who are legal observers that were supposed to be there.
Tresa Baldas: I’ve heard from other clerks that this is actually standard, and in some municipalities, they do tape up the windows when they count the absentee ballots. They cover them up so no one can see. And then there are I mean, you have people from both sides in there to ensure that, you know, there’s-there’s no foul play.
Clara Hendrickson: While my colleagues were in the counting room at the TCF Center observing what was happening there, I started to see all of these posts on Facebook going viral.
Person: They’re not letting us in.
Person: Cheaters. That’s what they are, cheaters. I knew they were going to cheat their way up to the top.
Clara Hendrickson: And that was sort of a claim that got rehashed over and over again.
Person: I have some friends inside. They said they wouldn’t even let them approach the table. And they said the few Republicans that were there, there were three Democrats for every one Republican.
Person: Two media outlets just interviewed me, they said, ‘there are people in there.’ I said, ‘yeah, they’re treating them like crap.’
Clara Hendrickson: And the president said that in a national address Thursday of Election Week…
Donald Trump: Our campaign has been denied access to observe any counting in Detroit.
Tresa Baldas: We all witnessed the same thing, but people come away with different interpretations of what happened. And I don’t know how you can misinterpret 450 challengers were freely roaming the floor and then come around and claim that challenges were not allowed to be in the room. That just didn’t happen.
James G. Hill: A lot of our stories came down to fact checking because there were so many of these claims that were going back and forth that we wanted to set the record straight, but we wanted to try to present it as objectively as possible. You know, just the facts. And this is what happens. But there are people you know, who no matter what you tell them, you know, skies blue. Eh, no it’s not. It’s-the sky’s blue. No, it’s not.
Donald Trump: Detroit is another place. And I wouldn’t say has the best reputation for election integrity.
Tresa Baldas: You hear this regularly that you know, Detroit is messed up. Detroit can’t handle an election. Detroit’s got problems galore. Well, Detroiters who were there that night were just pissed. They’re like, ‘you know what? This last election, you-when it went, swung in your favor, you were okay with how we counted the ballots. This time around, you’re having a fit?’ I interviewed a lot of people, people who were working. A lot of them were nervous. A lot of them were like, ‘okay, you know, there’s-it’s always tense, but I just went about my job.’ But there was a lot of resentment at being questioned and scrutinized in that way.
Anjanette Delgado: In my past experience with— That would be 2000 and the hanging chads and in Florida, you didn’t have Facebook and Twitter and all of these places where people could really spread as much fairy tales as they wanted.
James G. Hill: For a lot of people, this wasn’t rational. This was very personal.
Crowd: (chanting) Stop the count! Stop the count!
James G. Hill: For a lot of people, they felt that they were losing something. They took these losses very personal. They took the theories of, oh, massive fraud, very personal because there was so much of this back story that they didn’t understand. This was their “last stand,” quote-unquote. This was you’re ‘fighting for the soul of this country.’
Crowd: (chanting) Stop the count! Stop the count! Stop the count!
Detroit Free Press Live on Facebook November 4, 2020: If you’re a Detroit Free Press subscriber, you’ve gotten a push alert. Kristen Jordan Shamus is going to update us. What? What do we know?
Kristen Jordan Shamus, Reporter, Detroit Free Press: Well, what we’re hearing right now is that the Detroit Free Press has called Michigan for Joe Biden. The Republicans and Donald Trump are leading right now in Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. But those states are all still too close to call.
Detroit Free Press Live on Facebook November 4, 2020: Thanks so much, Kristen.
Kristen Jordan Shamus: Thank you.
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