By Linda Laderman
During his 36-year tenure as director of the Michigan Bureau of Elections, Chris Thomas steered his department to exponential growth as election issues became an increasingly integral topic of the national conversation.
Thomas, who plans to retire in June, led the bureau from an office with a small staff to a multi-level operation that registers lobbyists, administers the state’s election and campaign finance laws, and provides guidance to 1,600 local election clerks statewide.
“When I went into the election process we had eight or nine people with four or five phones,” Thomas recalled. “When all four of the lights were on you got a busy signal.”
Thomas, who also taught election law at his alma mater, Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School, said election law burst onto the national scene as a result of increased scrutiny of elections by voters, the media, and candidates.
“There was an explosion in terms of communications,” Thomas said. “The transformation that’s occurred over time is really quite incredible. When I began teaching there weren’t any textbooks on the subject. Now there are several.”
Thomas had a front row seat when the results of the presidential 2016 election were challenged by Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.
In late November, Thomas was in California visiting his children when he learned that Michigan was one of three states petitioned to recount its votes cast in the national election. The recount, requested by Stein, was initially granted before it was
halted by a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling.
While the bureau was prepared in the event of a recount, there was not a historical context for a statewide recount of the magnitude requested by Stein, Thomas said.
“We always looked at what we would do theoretically if there was a significant recount, but there was not a lot of track record doing statewide recounts of that size,” Thomas said. “It was good theatre. Based on the history of recounts, no one seriously thought it would change the outcome.”
As for the validity of Stein’s request, Thomas said a full recount would not have altered the outcome of the election since Stein’s chances of winning were non-existent.
“I don’t think her request was legitimate,” Thomas said. “Recounts are meant to determine who won and she couldn’t have won. If Hillary (Clinton) had requested the recount, with just over a 10,000-vote margin, there would not have been an issue.”
Had the request been allowed to continue, the Secretary of State’s Office would have had 7,000 precincts to recount, according to Thomas. As it was, more than 2,000 precincts were completed by the time it was halted, Thomas noted.
“Because we were delayed by objections, we would have had only seven days to complete the recount,” Thomas said. “We would have finished by December 13 if the court had not called it off. Our clerks did amazing work, so we took some solace in that fact.”
Thomas dismissed President Trump’s allegations that scores of unregistered voters went to the polls, contending that his comments were harmful to the foundation of the electoral process.
“Claims of voter fraud are a disservice to our country. When they are made without any basis, it taints the system,” Thomas said. “True fraud just doesn’t exist and it’s unhelpful to have those comments made without substance to support them.”
Looking back, Thomas said the last presidential election represented a stark shift in the scrutiny of the election process.
“It was a watershed year,” Thomas said of 2016. “For the first time the winner alleged voter fraud, calling into question the security of our elections. As a result of attempts by Russia to interfere in the vote, our elections are now deemed a critical issue by Homeland Security. So I think that significantly ups the game.”
Dealing with political controversy is nothing new to Thomas whose career in public service began during the Watergate crisis.
“My first job, after I graduated from St. Louis University with a master’s in urban affairs, was in the House of Representatives Office of Registrations and Deeds where candidates filed their finance reports,” Thomas recalled. “Nixon resigned just eight days after I started my job. As a result, the Federal Election Campaign act was passed in 1974, so I went to work for the newly established Federal Election Commission to help them figure out how to comply with the new federal law.”
Three years later, a delegation from Michigan met with Thomas as it was getting ready to implement the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, passed in 1976.
“Known as ‘Mr. Elections,’ Bernie Apol, who was director of the Michigan Elections Bureau, came to D.C. to learn more about the new law and they asked me to be their tour guide,” Thomas said. “D.C. was pretty expensive, so Michigan was looking pretty good. When they suggested I come to Michigan to work for the Elections Bureau, I shifted my focus to the elections process.”
It was a shift that brought Thomas back permanently to his native Michigan where he became a nationally recognized expert in the area of election law.
“In terms of state election directors, Chris is among the two or three most well known in the field,” said Charles Stewart III, who met Thomas when both men were working on developing the Election Performance Index through the Pew Research Center.
Stewart is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT and MIT director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, a leading research effort “that applies scientific analysis to questions about election technology, election administration, and election reform.”
“Chris is a really humble guy, who knows everyone,” Stewart said. “He is insightful and optimistic about applying neutral scientific principles to improve the election process. He embodies the concept of bi-partisanship.”
Although he will be leaving Lansing in three months, Thomas plans to stay active in the elections process by serving in an advisory capacity on academic boards across the country.
Beginning this July, Thomas will collaborate with Stewart on the newly launched MIT Election Data and Science Lab that aims to “build bridges between practitioners and academics.”
“Chris is insightful and helpful,” Stewart said. “I am really looking forward to having his voice in the room.”
Thomas said he is also reviewing an invitation to consult with the U.S. Vote Foundation, an organization that provides assistance to absentee voters overseas and at home.
“These executive boards are good operations that try to turn people out to vote by making the process as easy as possible,” Thomas said.
But before he begins consulting on election related issues, Thomas, who was married March 11, will be settling in his hometown of St. Joseph where he plans “to catch up on his reading and try and figure out retirement.”
Retiring elections director 'embodies bipartisanship'
By Linda Laderman