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How mistakes in rural Michigan county led to big election disinformation

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Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy voted for President Donald Trump. A day after November's election, she received an email from the Republican president's campaign, asking her to turn her support into action and volunteer to "help us secure the vote."

"That race is not over in Michigan despite what the fake news says," said the Nov. 4 message that began "Good evening Sheryl." It continued: "We are confident that the final score will end in victory for President Trump."

Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy said the Nov. 3, 2020, election experience has her questioning whether she will ever vote Republican again.
Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy said the Nov. 3, 2020, election experience has her questioning whether she will ever vote Republican again.
John L. Russell, Special to The Detroit News

Within days, Trump's supporters would claim that it was Guy, a longtime Republican election official in a 23,000-person county, who oversaw a "massive fraud" — an unproven accusation that ballooned into a nationwide conspiracy theory, spurring lawsuits and sowing distrust in voting machines in multiple battleground states.

Oversights in preparing voting equipment in Antrim County resulted in Democrat Joe Biden appearing to win the GOP-leaning county in preliminary results. But Trump won the county in official results sent to the state after issues were identified and corrected. Overall, Trump lost Michigan by 154,000 votes.

At the center of the firestorm is a passionate and plainspoken 59-year-old Republican clerk who said she hasn't taken a vacation since 2008. Guy has faced threats and name-calling. The fallout has left her afraid for the country's future and altered politically.

“I voted Republican. I’ll never do it again, I don’t think," Guy said last week. "I just think it’s a changed party."

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Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy
I voted Republican. I’ll never do it again, I don’t think. I just think it’s a changed party.

The Detroit News obtained hundreds of emails from within the Antrim County Clerk's Office that show election officials identified the human errors that led to problems in the county's results within hours of realizing something went wrong. They took responsibility for them, worked to share information about what had happened but were overpowered by a wave of false allegations.

The 2020 election in Antrim County is defined by a handful of mistakes that turned into fuel for frustrated supporters of a losing candidate. Instead of emphasizing what happened, which was clear to local election officials on Nov. 4, high-ranking Republicans spent weeks pushing to investigate the situation, which fanned the fires of conspiracy.

"The initial vote counts in Antrim County appeared to be irregular," said a Nov 9. letter from J. Justin Riemer, chief counsel for the Republican National Committee. "This letter places you on notice to preserve and not destroy any evidence related to the software malfunction and/or human error which caused the incorrect count."

A message from President Donald Trump's Michigan campaign asks Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy to volunteer to help with the "county canvasses." The president would later allege there was "massive fraud" in the county's election.
A message from President Donald Trump's Michigan campaign asks Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy to volunteer to help with the "county canvasses." The president would later allege there was "massive fraud" in the county's election.
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The situation in Antrim County raised "questions over whether there are fundamental flaws in the software," said a Nov. 16 letter signed by 40 Republican members of the GOP-led Michigan Legislature.

On Dec. 14 — five weeks after election officials determined what led to the problems — Trump himself tweeted that a report on Antrim County's vote showed "massive fraud."

It didn't.

'Knew exactly what happened'

The first reports of problems with Antrim County's unofficial vote totals came at about 8:15 a.m. on Nov. 4, four hours and six minutes after the county clerk's office uploaded its unofficial results to a county website.

"Question on what is posted on Antrim County page for election results and what is being reported," an emailer named Melissa Rainey wrote to Guy at 8:18 a.m. "These cannot be correct. I know for a fact Kearney (Township) had over 1,200 votes."

Information posted on the website showed 760 votes in Kearney Township for the two major-party presidential candidates: 744 of them for Democrat Joe Biden and only 16 for Trump.

An email at 8:18 a.m. Nov. 4 raises concerns about the unofficial 2020 election results in Antrim County.
An email at 8:18 a.m. Nov. 4 raises concerns about the unofficial 2020 election results in Antrim County.
Screenshot

On top of that, the overall numbers showed Biden winning the conservative northern Michigan county by 3,260 votes with 62% of the overall total. Trump received 36%.

Guy had left her office at about 5 a.m. on Nov. 4 after working through the night. She went home to take a break. She was in line at McDonald's when she found out about the irregularities through an email.

While the conspiracy theories about fraudulent voting machines would last for months, the clerk's staff and election vendors determined the problem within hours, according to an internal email and a timeline Guy created.

At 10:49 a.m., Kurt Knowles — an account manager for ElectionSource, which works on behalf of Dominion Voting Systems in Michigan — sent Guy an email saying there were changes to the ballots after the initial programming of machines. The voting technology of Dominion Voting Systems is used in the majority of Michigan's 83 counties, including Antrim.

When the changes were completed, all of the memory cards in the machines should have been collected from the townships and reloaded, he wrote in an email exchange that had started earlier in the morning.

"Whenever major ballot changes (occur), such as adding a race or adding a candidate to an existing race, the ... software renumbers all the races and candidates and this affects races even in townships/precincts that didn't change," Knowles wrote. "Thankfully, the tapes should be correct.

"The only solution is the manual entry of all races that have totals on the tapes that don't agree with the reports as they are now."

When machines are finished scanning the ballots, the paper ballots are retained and a totals tape showing the number of votes for each candidate in each race is printed from the machines, according to the Michigan Department of State. However, because at least some of the machines weren't updated after the ballot revisions, the communication of the unofficial results to the county's election management system was flawed, according to election officials.

Knowles, who has worked in elections for 23 years, told The News he knew what had gone wrong with the tallies in Antrim County "immediately" after receiving a call from a deputy clerk at about 8 a.m. Nov. 4.

“It’s been a horrible surprise," said Knowles of the conspiracies that have spiraled from Antrim County. "It’s been blown way out of proportion."

At 10:49 a.m. Nov. 4, Kurt Knowles of ElectionSource identifies the cause of problems with Antrim County's unofficial results. "When the last of those changes was completed, all the CF Cards (and USB sticks for the VAT) should have been collected back from all the townships and reloaded," he wrote.
At 10:49 a.m. Nov. 4, Kurt Knowles of ElectionSource identifies the cause of problems with Antrim County's unofficial results. "When the last of those changes... At 10:49 a.m. Nov. 4, Kurt Knowles of ElectionSource identifies the cause of problems with Antrim County's unofficial results. "When the last of those changes was completed, all the CF Cards (and USB sticks for the VAT) should have been collected back from all the townships and reloaded," he wrote.
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More than a month after the initial email from Knowles, Dominion CEO John Poulos told state lawmakers similar details about what led to the mistakes.

In October, county election officials had to add a contest to three of 18 tabulators, Poulos said. But officials failed to update the tabulator memory cards in all of the tabulators. Officials also failed to conduct testing on their final system, which would have caught the error, he said.

"If all of the tabulators had been updated as per procedure, there wouldn’t have been any error in the unofficial reporting," the Dominion CEO told legislators. "If public logic and accuracy testing had taken place, the error would’ve been caught when it should have been caught, prior to the election.

"If steps weren’t specifically taken to salvage the already printed ballots, the system would not have allowed election officials to upload memory cards, and the reporting error never would have occurred."

A timeline from the clerk's office shows corrections being submitted for Antrim County ballots in October, including a school board race in Central Lake Township, a missing proposal in Boyne Falls and a missing candidate in Mancelona Township.

When the software that handles the unofficial tallies is receiving data, it's expecting the numbers to come back in corresponding rows, explained Jonathan Brater, Michigan's elections director. If rows are added — like a new candidate or a new proposal — that the software isn't expecting, it leads to problems, he said.

Because the problems resulted in the faulty communication of the unofficial results, the canvassing process that takes place after Election Day would have caught the issues if they weren't identified beforehand, Brater said. That's because the tapes from the voting machines had accurate totals of the votes within their jurisdictions, he said.

Over Nov. 5 and Nov. 6, Antrim County officials canvassed the election results and reported the official tallies. Guy's office sent the official numbers to the Bureau of Elections at 6:35 a.m. on Nov. 7. Trump had won the county by 3,788 votes, 61%-37%, a 7,048-vote swing from the unofficial results.

“We knew exactly what happened," Guy said. "And we owned it."

'There will be chaos'

Over the following weeks, however, the acknowledged Antrim County miscount in unofficial results cast doubt upon Dominion Voting Systems, which was used in 66 counties in Michigan.

A banner supporting former President Donald Trump hangs on a home in Bellaire, the county seat of Antrim County, Michigan, which had to fix technical issues with the election results that ended with a Trump victory in the county but not the state.
A banner supporting former President Donald Trump hangs on a home in Bellaire, the county seat of Antrim County, Michigan, which had to fix technical... A banner supporting former President Donald Trump hangs on a home in Bellaire, the county seat of Antrim County, Michigan, which had to fix technical issues with the election results that ended with a Trump victory in the county but not the state.
John L. Russell, Special to The Detroit News

Much of that suspicion was focused on Antrim County, spurring conspiracy theories that the errors made by county officials were actually part of an intentional software "glitch" that could have been replicated across Michigan and other battleground states. 

"You had an unusual amount of willingness to spread information regardless of whether it was true," Michigan's election director Brater said of the situation surrounding the Nov. 3 election.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel emphasized the issues in Antrim County during a Nov. 6 press conference.

"There was a major software issue in Antrim County that we have concerns could have caused problems in other counties as well," McDaniel said in front of a crowd at the Oakland County Republican Party's headquarters.

Sidney Powell, a conservative attorney, filed a conspiracy theory-laden lawsuit seeking to overturn Michigan's election on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

A Nov. 11, 2020, tweet from Kayleigh McEnany, then-White House press secretary, describes the software in Antrim County as "failed."
A Nov. 11, 2020, tweet from Kayleigh McEnany, then-White House press secretary, describes the software in Antrim County as "failed."
Screenshot

"The fraud begins with the election software and hardware from Dominion Voting Systems Corporation (“Dominion”) used by the Michigan Board of State Canvassers," her unsuccessful suit alleged.

An Antrim County resident named William Bailey of Central Lake Township also claimed there was fraud and filed his own suit in the 13th Circuit Court on Nov. 23. He penned a message that gained traction online, saying, "I have believed since the day after the Nov. 3, general election that voter fraud may have happened in Antrim County via the Dominion Voting Systems and other electronic voting equipment used in Antrim County."

Bailey filed a complaint with the county prosecutor's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said his message, which provided no actual evidence of wrongdoing.

"We are ground zero for Dominion Voting Systems machines switching votes," Bailey wrote. "Everyone in America and the world knows what happened in Antrim County, Michigan, on Election Day. Everyone wants answers."

In a message on Nov. 28, 2020, an emailer tells Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy to "wake up" and "clear your reputation now."
In a message on Nov. 28, 2020, an emailer tells Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy to "wake up" and "clear your reputation now."
Screenshot

Although answers were provided 25 days earlier, Guy's email inbox filled with criticisms and calls for her to let a team investigate the county's voting machines.

"I just wanted you to know that I think it would be a good idea to let the cyber experts look at the election machinery," Pat Hanlon, a Central Lake Township trustee, wrote Guy. "We do need (to) know if we can trust our election process."

Tami Carlone, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the State Board of Education, wrote Guy, making a similar request on Nov. 26, Thanksgiving.

"We don't just need elections," Carlone ended her message. "We also need to be able to trust the results or there will be chaos."

Bailey declined an interview request for this story, referring a reporter to his attorney, Matthew DePerno.

Despite all of the claims, the Michigan Department of State on Dec. 17 released the results of an audit of the presidential results in Antrim County. Trump gained 12 votes, a 0.07% shift from certified results. The audit was essentially a hand recount of the presidential race for every single ballot in the county, Brater said.

Michigan Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said he hasn't found "found any evidence of fraud" in Antrim County's handling of the presidential election.
Michigan Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said he hasn't found "found any evidence of fraud" in Antrim County's handling of the presidential election.
Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, is the chairman of the Senate Oversight Committee that has been examining claims of fraud in Michigan's vote. While acknowledging errors were made by the clerk's office, McBroom said, "I haven’t found any evidence of fraud in the presidential election in Antrim County."

The state's audit should dispel any notion that the machines were at fault, he said. Asked about the nationwide conspiracy theories that resulted from the county, McBroom said the theories are still spreading.

A president's tweet

As part of Bailey's lawsuit, 13th Circuit Judge Kevin Elsenheimer, a former Republican state lawmaker, allowed a group of Trump supporters to analyze the voting machines in Antrim County. The decision, which could have ended the conspiracy theories, instead gave them fuel.

Allied Security Operations Group released a 23-page report on Dec. 14. The report claimed that Dominion Voting Systems "is intentionally and purposefully designed with inherent errors to create systemic fraud and influence election results."

Eric Coomer from Dominion Voting demonstrates his company's touchscreen tablet that includes a paper audit trail Aug. 30, 2018, at the second meeting of Secretary of State Brian Kemp's Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections Commission in Grovetown, Ga.
Eric Coomer from Dominion Voting demonstrates his company's touchscreen tablet that includes a paper audit trail Aug. 30, 2018, at the second meeting of Secretary... Eric Coomer from Dominion Voting demonstrates his company's touchscreen tablet that includes a paper audit trail Aug. 30, 2018, at the second meeting of Secretary of State Brian Kemp's Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections Commission in Grovetown, Ga.
Bob Andres, AP

It's unclear how Allied Security Operations Group reached this conclusion. Election experts slammed the report as faulty and misleading. Trump tweeted it showed "massive fraud."

The report, written by Russell James Ramsland Jr., who is part of ASOG's management team, says the group found an "error rate" of 68% when examining "the tabulation log" of the server for Antrim County. It's unclear what the "error rate" data refers to specifically and how it affects the results.

McBroom, a Republican lawmaker, has examined the document. He said Allied Security Operations Group has refused to acknowledge the outcome of the state's recount, and the theory that votes were swapped is incorrect.

"The group that came in from Texas led by Ramsland, ASOG, is misrepresenting what they did there as a forensic audit," McBroom said. "They never attempted to verify or discredit the explanation the clerk’s office provided, which would have been a natural part of any forensic audit."

M-88 is the main street running through downtown Bellaire, the county seat of Antrim County, Michigan.
M-88 is the main street running through downtown Bellaire, the county seat of Antrim County, Michigan.
John L. Russell, Special to The Detroit News

Asked on Friday what proof of fraud he had, DePerno, an attorney for Bailey, didn't provide specific details. Instead, he suggested a reporter would funnel information back to Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, both Democrats. He also questioned why a reporter had refused to "condemn" Nessel's pursuit of sanctions against lawyers who brought suits to overturn the election.

"We have a lot of evidence, but why should I give it to you if you don't want to answer my questions?" DePerno asked.

DePerno, Ramsland and the report on Antrim County are still gaining attention in conservative media circles. Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow and an ardent Trump supporter, highlighted them in a movie he created called "Absolute Proof." There was "massive machine election fraud that went on," Lindell said at one point in the film.

"This is one little county in northern Michigan, and these machines would do it right down to the precinct," Lindell added.

Dominion Voting Systems filed a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit Monday, Feb. 22, against Mike Lindell, the founder and CEO of Minnesota-based MyPillow.
Dominion Voting Systems filed a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit Monday, Feb. 22, against Mike Lindell, the founder and CEO of Minnesota-based MyPillow.
Alex Brandon, AP

On Monday, Dominion Voting Systems launched a $1.3 billion defamation suit against Lindell, saying the businessman had exploited and disseminated falsehoods about the company. There had been human error by the county clerk and "not machine fraud" in Antrim County, the Dominion suit said.

'They take it as gospel'

Guy has worked for Antrim County for more than 40 years. She graduated from high school on a Friday and began working for the county on the following Monday, she said.

Guy has been the clerk for nine years. She won another four-year term on Nov. 3 after running unopposed. This will be her last term in the office, she said. In the past three months, she's faced death threats and "been called everything," she said.

Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy sits at her desk in the county builiding in downtown Bellaire, Michigan.
Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy sits at her desk in the county builiding in downtown Bellaire, Michigan.
John L. Russell, Special to The Detroit News

The threats primarily came in over the phone from untrackable numbers, Guy said. She said she forwarded the messages to the Antrim County Sheriff's Office. That office didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

Guy said in an interview there was no fraud in the election, and the spread of misinformation across the country has been "tragic." Asked about the future of the country, she said she's afraid. She hopes and prays Trump supporters "see the light."

"They obviously have picked a route that I don’t believe," Guy said. "They serve their Kool-Aid and people are drinking it. And they take it as gospel.”

People have been "brainwashed" into believing something "that isn't real," Guy said.

Antrim County election timeline
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Sept. 5, 2020 

A timeline created by the Antrim County Clerk's Office shows the events that unfolded as election results in the county initially contained irregularities.

  • ElectionSource, a company that works with Dominion Voting Systems, provided Antrim County with the first 2020 ballot proofs.

Sept. 8, 2020

  • State of Michigan approved Antrim County ballot proof format. Antrim County clerk’s notice and proof ballots were mailed to all candidates on all ballots.

Sept. 9, 2020

  • Antrim County clerk began correcting ballot proofs, primarily spelling corrections.

Sept. 10, 2020

  • Antrim County clerk corrected spelling on Echo Township, Banks Township, Elk Rapids, Milton and Torch Lake ballots.

Sept. 14, 2020

  • Antrim County clerk corrected language for Banks Township, corrected school board and spelling for Elk Rapids township clerk.

Sept. 15, 2020

  • Antrim County clerk corrected party affiliation for Mancelona Township trustee.

Sept. 16, 2020 

  • Antrim County clerk received information that Char-Em School Board was missing. ElectionSource provided last ballot proofs to Antrim County clerk.

Sept. 18, 2020

  • Antrim County clerk signed off on final ballot proof to ElectionSource.

Sept. 29, 2020

  • Antrim County clerk installed first software from ElectionSource flash drive, compact flash cards burned from software and provided to precincts at various times.

Oct. 5, 2020

  • Antrim County clerk submitted error involving school board on Central Lake Township ballot.

Oct. 7, 2020

  • Antrim County clerk discovered missing Boyne Falls proposal, which had not been provided. Mancelona Township provided Antrim County clerk with affidavit of identity for candidate missing from ballot. Antrim County clerk submitted the correction to ElectionSource.

Oct. 23, 2020

  • ElectionSource provided new flash drive with updated program.

Oct. 24, 2020

  • Mancelona township performed its public accuracy test with updated compact flash card and ballots.

Nov. 3, 2020

  • 9:25 p.m. (approximately): Antrim County received first precinct reports from Chestonia Township.

Nov. 4, 2020

  • 3:15 a.m. (approximately): Antrim County received last precinct reports, Mancelona Township.
  • 4:09 a.m.: Antrim County ran final report, reported unofficial numbers to Michigan Bureau of Elections and uploaded report to Antrim County elections website.
  • 8:15 a.m. (approximately): First alert of possible error on unofficial results.
  • 8:45 a.m. (approximately): Tabulator tapes compared against unofficial results. Inconsistencies found.
  • 10:49 a.m.: ElectionSource verified the process that was missed. All compact flash cards had not been reburned to match newest software. Antrim County began manually entering numbers from tabulator tapes.

Nov. 5, 2020

Election canvassers began canvassing the results. One member was recused because he had worked as an election inspector at his own jurisdiction. A temporary appointment was made by the Antrim County clerk to fill the empty Republican position.

  • 1:20 p.m.: Antrim County clerk ran report on the general election, reported updated unofficial result numbers to the Michigan Bureau of elections and uploaded report to the Antrim County election website.
  • 7:23 p.m.: Antrim County clerk confirms that human error occurred on the updated unofficial results (the previous numbers had not been cleared from the original count) and pulled the posted numbers.

Nov. 6, 2020

Antrim County clerk provided reburned compact flash card with updated software for the Central Lake Township precinct.

  • 9:21 a.m.: Central Lake Township clerk, along with an election inspector, retabulated all ballots in the same room as the canvassers.
  • 8:38 p.m.: Central Lake Township clerk completed the retabulation of ballots and reprinted the tape.
  • 9:45 p.m. (approximately): Election canvassers certified the last precinct.
  • 9:58 p.m.: Antrim County clerk ran the final report on the official canvassed results and uploaded the report to the Antrim County election website.

Nov. 7, 2020

  • 6:35 a.m.: Antrim County clerk reported official result numbers to the Michigan Bureau of Elections

Source: Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy

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cmauger@detroitnews.com

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