Deepening tensions in rural and conservative Hillsdale county, Michigan, are coming to a head in a recall election for an election-denying township clerk who has been accused of spreading misinformation and mishandling a vote tabulator.
Elected in Adams Township in 2020, Stephanie Scott, who ran unopposed, has spent her years as a clerk – a position that would typically oversee township elections – mostly removed from the electoral process. After she refused to turn over a voting machine for regular maintenance in 2021, allegedly shared confidential voter data with a third-party IT analyst, and spread lies about election-rigging, the Michigan Bureau of Elections removed Scott’s power to administer elections.
Michigan’s election security problems are not limited to the small township. Similar alleged security breaches surfaced across the politically competitive state following the 2020 elections as some poll workers and clerks, convinced by Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, attempted to access tabulators. A special prosecutor in Michigan has reportedly convened a secret grand jury to investigate.
In a 25 October 2021 letter to Scott, Jocelyn Benson, the Michigan secretary of state, wrote “your past statements, detailed in prior letters, indicate that you are unwilling to fulfill your responsibilities as clerk”, and directed the clerk to “refrain from any election administration activities”. Scott’s attorney, Stefanie Lambert, has joined lawsuits in Michigan and Pennsylvania pushing debunked allegations of election fraud and has been sanctioned for her role in promoting election-related lies. (In an interview with the Guardian, Scott denied all allegations of wrongdoing as “one hundred percent false”.)
If the 2 May recall is successful, Scott will be replaced by Suzy Roberts, a retiree who spent most of her career in the auto industry and has worked as a poll worker. Although Roberts has historically voted Republican, she is running as an independent, as required by the rules guiding recall elections.
“This election is between a giant lie that has taken over our township meetings, versus people who want to make lying wrong again,” said Roberts.
An avid documentarian of local politics, Penny Swan started filming political meetings in Hillsdale county, Michigan, nearly a decade ago. A lifelong resident of the rural county, Swan was once a proud member of the Hillsdale county Republican party, serving as party treasurer and earning recognition for sharing goings-on in Hillsdale county on her YouTube channel, “PS Political News and Views”.
Swan got along with her colleagues, even earning a certificate of recognition from the local Republican party, which hangs among paintings and family photos in Swan’s living room.
But after the 2020 presidential election, politics in rural and deep red Hillsdale county soured. A faction of hard-right party members within the county Republican party took control of the party, renouncing more than 60 local GOP delegates who did not share their political vision and rallying around false claims that the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. In December, 2022, Swan logged on to Facebook and announced her hiatus from some political activities, including filming city council meetings in Hillsdale.
Her frustrations followed a split within the county GOP into factions: one that calls itself the “America First” Republican party of Hillsdale, and another that largely disavows the election lies.
At an 11 August 2022 county GOP convention, members of the so-called America First faction disavowed more than 60 members of the party. Armed guards blocked the members from accessing the meeting. Fourteen days later, members who had been disavowed and their allies elected a new slate of leadership and claimed sole legitimacy as the Hillsdale county Republican executive committee.
For months, the warring factions have met separately, vying for legal recognition and sending separate slates of delegates to the state Republican party convention in February 2023. On 28 April, a circuit court judge ruled that the disavowals were improper and recognized subsequent meetings held by the executive committee as “valid”.
Residents say the split in the Republican party has spilled over into the wider Hillsdale county community, breaking up friendships and sowing mistrust among neighbors.
“All of the election fraud screaming and hollering I was behind at first, because I felt the same way,” said Tim Martin, a Hillsdale county resident who supported Trump in 2020. “But when you can’t produce proof of what you’re saying, you’re looking like a liar.”
Across Michigan, which Trump lost by 2.8 points, voters have overwhelmingly rejected election denialism and embraced measures to expand voting access. Proposition 2, a ballot measure that established early voting and expanded absentee voting passed by 60%. Secretary of state Jocelyn Benson won her seat in a definitive race against Kristina Karamo, who spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, and voters in the state elected Dana Nessel as attorney general over Matthew DePerno, who led multiple unsuccessful legal challenges to the 2020 presidential election in Michigan.
But in Hillsdale county, as many residents are eager to point out, the opposite was true. Karamo earned 66% of the vote and DePerno swept, nearly earning 70% of Hillsdale county voters in his election.
“I don’t have any of the friends I had in the Republican party at all any more,” Martin said.
It was in this fractured environment that Scott’s alleged election improprieties came to light.
Janice Roberts, a longtime poll worker in Adams Township, said that false claims of fraud in recent years have whipped up unfounded fears of election tampering and fraud among community members in the county.
During a local election on 4 November 2021 Roberts alleged that Scott and members of the rightwing faction in the county GOP hovered uncomfortably close to poll workers, creating an intimidating atmosphere.
“They were right up there,” said Roberts, who took a photo of the encounter. “The [poll workers] are just trying to make sure everything counts.” Scott confirmed that she watched the vote count, but said no one had asked her to stand further away and dismissed the claim that the presence of the observers constituted intimidation.
Abe Dane, the chief deputy clerk of Hillsdale county who was tasked with taking over elections in Adams Township following Scott’s removal from the process in 2021 is more concerned about the misinformation spreading through the community, eroding fragile trust in the electoral process.
“It’s guaranteed to have eroded confidence in elections and that upsets me incredibly,” said Dane. “The misinformation and inability to understand the processes, and checks and balances when we explain them really is taken personally by the clerk community – because we put our heart and soul into each election, and in this community.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s recall – and next year’s presidential election – Hillsdale county remains divided.
Swan, who caucused with the America First Republicans until recently, said after leaving the rightwing group and criticizing them online, she was met with threats and slurs.
In a letter sent to a close personal contact of Swan and shared with the Guardian, someone who identified himself only as “Lance” alleged that Swan had “spread hate, lies and misfortune,” and warned that “this is my only and last chance to save her from herself […] I cannot be held responsible for doing what needs to be done in defending my friends who do not deserve what she is doing to them”.
After Swan spoke in defense of childrens’ books featuring LGBTQ+ characters at the library, a meme circulated on Facebook calling Swan a pedophile. Swan calls the note “all talk”, but filed a police report anyway. She takes more stock in security these days, too. “Where I live, the building is secured with cameras,” said Swan. “I always have my gun with me – I’m for the most part carrying all the time.”
Randy Johnson, who is running to replace township supervisor Mark Nichols – an ally of Scott – said he had gotten a threatening call in the middle of the night. “I got a phone call Friday at midnight, by someone who would not identify themselves,” said Johnson. “He did tell me he knew where I lived and he called me a lot of dirty words.”
For Roberts, who is running to replace Scott as township clerk, the election is as much about community relationships as it is election denialism.
“This is a story about tearing a community apart,” she said.