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They played a crucial role in confirming Biden's 2020 win. Now, they're out of a job

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This moment, this familiar transfer of power from one president to the next, this whole moment was able to happen in part because of another moment, when a Republican lawyer in Michigan voted to certify the election for Joe Biden.

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AARON VAN LANGEVELDE: We must not attempt to exercise power we simply don't have.

CHANG: That is Aaron Van Langevelde. He was one of two Republicans on what's called the Michigan Board of State Canvassers.

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VAN LANGEVELDE: This board must do its part to uphold the rule of law and comply with our legal duty to certify this election.

CHANG: Now, in normal times, the job of a canvasser is so forgettable, so ministerial, some might even say so boring, that we wouldn't even be doing a story about it on NPR. But 2020 was not normal times. And that year, the job of canvasser, which is to certify election results in Michigan, was a fraught job, especially if you were a Republican. You see, after voting stopped in 2020, a lot of pressure came down on Republican canvassers - from the Michigan state party, from President Trump - to not hand Joe Biden a victory, even though Biden had won the state by 154,000 votes.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: As America awaits the outcome of this presidential election, all eyes are on battleground states; among them, Michigan...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Trump campaign has filed lawsuits against multiple states, including Michigan.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Alleging misconduct in the 2020 election.

CHANG: But despite all of that chaos, despite the relentless push to keep Trump in power, all the litigation, the Michigan Board of State Canvassers ultimately voted to certify the election for Joe Biden. And shortly after that vote, the formal transfer of power from the Trump administration to the Biden administration finally began.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Some big breaking news to tell you about - the General Services Administration moments ago saying that President-elect Biden is the apparent winner...

CHANG: In the meantime, Aaron Van Langevelde would soon realize his decision to certify in Michigan came with consequences. You see, when his term as canvasser ended after the 2020 election, his fellow Michigan Republicans replaced him with someone else. And he wasn't the only Republican canvasser who met this fate. A Detroit News investigation found that in 8 of Michigan's 11 largest counties, Republicans replaced those canvassers who voted to certify Biden's 2020 win. And at least some of those new Republican canvassers have pushed debunked theories about election fraud or have said outright they would not have certified the 2020 election results. One of the Republicans who suddenly found herself without a job on a canvassing board was Michelle Voorheis.

It's so nice to meet you.

MICHELLE VOORHEIS: It's nice to meet you.

CHANG: She had served on the Genesee County Board of Canvassers. I met up with Voorheis at her property management office in Clio, Mich., about 20 miles north of Flint. The walls here are covered with photos that show all of her family's work in the Republican Party.

VOORHEIS: Of course, George Bush. And this was daddy Bush. He came to Flint...

CHANG: Oh, yeah. George H. W. right there.

VOORHEIS: ...To one of our Lincoln Day dinners once and did photo ops.

CHANG: Oh, wow - shaking hands with your husband. That's kind of cool.

VOORHEIS: I know. That was an inauguration picture. We're in there somewhere.

CHANG: Now, there is no question Voorheis is a really enthusiastic Republican.

VOORHEIS: I mean, the first election I voted in was George - Gerald Ford. Sorry. You get old and your brain doesn't work right - Gerald Ford, and I did vote for him.

CHANG: And so is her husband.

VOORHEIS: My husband got nominated to be a No. 1 Republican.

CHANG: He got nominated to be the No. 1...

VOORHEIS: A No. 1 Republican - every county has a No. 1 Republican.

CHANG: Ah.

You can tell Voorheis cares deeply about Republicans winning elections in Michigan, but she's also deeply committed to the oath she took to uphold the law as a canvasser. That job, she says, it's pretty straightforward.

VOORHEIS: The board of canvassers is kind of like the bank auditors. You know, we verify that the election results that came in on election night are accurate. Basically, what the board of canvassers does, it takes each and every poll book, each and every report that comes out of that machine and makes sure that they match.

CHANG: The job is basically like arithmetic. You compare the number of ballots cast to the number of voters who've been reported as having voted. There's nothing investigatory about this task. You don't get to launch a probe just because you don't like the numbers you see. And when Voorheis decided to certify Biden's win in Genesee County, it felt like a no-brainer. The numbers compelled her to do so, and so did the law.

Was there ever a moment of any doubt where you thought, hmm, maybe I shouldn't certify?

VOORHEIS: No, absolutely not.

CHANG: But in the days that followed, she got blowback from her fellow Republicans in a way she had never seen during her entire 13 years as a canvasser.

VOORHEIS: People started coming to me and saying that I shouldn't have certified. You shouldn't have certified. But it didn't become an issue until well after we certified.

CHANG: How did they articulate their reasons for saying why you shouldn't have certified?

VOORHEIS: Well, it was all of the alleged fraud that was - or the fraud that was being alleged. And people, again, they don't know what the board of canvassers does. I mean, we had observers. We had observers from the League of Women Voters, the Democrat Party, the Republican Party, and probably a few more. And they sat there and watched all of the work that we did. And none of them, to my knowledge, went back out in public and said, oh, my goodness, you know, this is a hot mess; they shouldn't have certified.

CHANG: And when it came time for the Genesee County Republican Party to figure out who they wanted to nominate to serve on the board of canvassers, your name, I understand, was not on that list.

VOORHEIS: No. Sadly, it was not.

CHANG: And why do you think your name didn't appear on that list after having served on this board for 13 years?

VOORHEIS: I think that people believed these allegations that were flying around. And I - well, just whatever election fraud, the fact that I wasn't buying into that didn't sit well with people.

CHANG: We reached out to the executive committee of the Genesee County Republican Party about how all of this went down. They're in charge of nominating Republican canvassers. And Amy Facchinello, the vice chair of the county GOP, told me that Voorheis' decision to certify had nothing to do with why she's not on the board of canvassers now.

AMY FACCHINELLO: Everybody on the executive committee is - almost all of them - new to the whole political process and politics in Genesee County. And she hasn't come to any of our meetings or anything, so when she showed up that night to put her name in to be elected, people didn't know her. So that's probably why she didn't get the votes.

CHANG: But it's hard to ignore the fact that Voorheis now joins a pretty sizable group of former Republican canvassers who have been replaced after they decided to certify Biden's 2020 victory.

VOORHEIS: I can't get inside someone else's head, but I do know that the meeting I was at where people were nominated, the people who cared to attend the meeting and stood up to introduce themselves and say why they wanted the position, every single one of them said because they wanted to stop election fraud. I can show you the board of canvassers manual. It says in a big paragraph that you're not allowed to investigate fraud.

CHANG: She walks over and pulls that manual right out.

VOORHEIS: OK. The investigation of alleged election law violations is not part of the canvass. Their duties are purely ministerial and clerical.

CHANG: Right there in the manual - ministerial and clerical.

VOORHEIS: That is it - right there in black and white. So there is no authority to not certify. If you've done your job properly, you need to certify.

CHANG: But what if a board of canvassers decides not to certify just because they don't like the results of a particular election? Can these bureaucratic positions inside our election machinery disrupt the process in such a way to defy the will of voters?

LAWRENCE NORDEN: If you want to know how important these positions are to our elections, all you have to do is look at what happened in 2020. There was a concerted effort from the top to try to overturn the outcome of that election, right?

CHANG: That is Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice. He's been working on election security for years, and he says the results of the 2020 election stood in the end because the people operating the election system spoke up for the truth.

NORDEN: If those people had not stood up and told the truth, as bad as the aftermath of the 2020 election was and the insurrection, I think it would have been a lot worse. The system held in large part because the people that were involved in the kind of nuts-and-bolts job of running our elections refused to bend to the lie and told the truth.

CHANG: Even though Michelle Voorheis is not on the Genesee County Board of Canvassers anymore, she's offered to help train the new members on the board so that they know the rules for the next election. But she says no one has taken her up on that offer.

Do you feel like the people who run the county Republican Party here are still giving you the silent treatment?

VOORHEIS: No. I mean, I don't know what they think privately, but we just avoid the 2020 election topic because it's politics, and I can separate politics from personal. And I know I've seen so many things through the course of my political career, if you will - it's all like a cycle. But honestly, 36 years from now, they're going to be looking back and going, it's pretty much same. It's politics. It comes and goes. It ebbs and flows. That's what it does.

CHANG: Whether what happened in 2020 was the ebb and flow of politics or some fundamental change to how democracy works, who knows? What we do know, as Larry Norden points out, is that the system held in 2020 because in the end, people like Michelle Voorheis and Aaron Van Langevelde followed the law and did their jobs. And in 2022 and 2024, they won't have those jobs. Someone else will.

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CHANG: In another part of the program, we explore another job in the election system - the job of poll worker. As with canvassing boards, people who have cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election are now seeking those jobs, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOST IN THOUGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.