Biden goes ahead of Trump in Michigan as vote count continues in state's largest counties

Todd Spangler
Detroit Free Press

With the presidency on the line in a historic election, Democratic nominee Joe Biden on Wednesday held a lead in Michigan which could turn out to be determinative in a tight race with President Donald Trump as votes continued to be counted in key states.

Trump, meanwhile, began to outline legal strategies to challenge votes in states where he was trailing, including Michigan, a move which could delay the final outcome of the fractious election for weeks. 

By Wednesday afternoon, Biden held a 248-214 edge in the Electoral College as Trump continued to hold a lead in Pennsylvania, which was considered one of the few remaining paths he had to winning.

Poll workers count absentee ballots for the city of Detroit at the TCF Center in downtown Detroit on November 3, 2020.

But in Michigan shortly after 9 a.m., Biden went ahead of Trump for the first time since the polls closed the previous night. By 5:30 p.m., Biden led Trump by 70,511 votes, 49.9%-48.6%, according to the Associated Press count of the state's tally, with 99% of the expected vote in. That's nearly seven times the 10,704-vote margin Trump won the state by over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Speaking in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday afternoon, Biden stopped short of saying he'd won but said he was on his way. "I’m not here to declare we won," he said. "But I believe when the count is done, we will be declared the winner."

The 5.39 million votes counted so far was still short of the total cast in the historic election, with an unknown number yet to be tallied, meaning it was possible Biden could add to that that total. As the counting proceeded through the early morning hours Wednesday, there were large numbers of absentee ballots that were tallied from Michigan's biggest counties, including Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Kent and it was believed that was where the bulk of any remaining votes were.

"Hundreds of thousands of ballots in our largest jurisdictions are still being counted, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Warren & Sterling Heights," Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a post on Twitter about 7 a.m. 

Later in the morning, Benson held a news conference in which she said there remained tens of thousands of uncounted ballots, including those in Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and elsewhere. CNN reported Benson as saying at least 100,000 votes remained to be counted as of noon but that number was shrinking.

It was as those totals came in that Biden took the lead. If all the current trends in states nationally were to hold and Trump wins Pennsylvania, Michigan could still be the tipping point state to give Biden 16 Electoral College votes toward the 270 he needs to win the election, but that remained at least somewhat in doubt with the counting not concluded.

Biden led Trump in the popular vote nationally by some 2.99 million votes as of late Wednesday afternoon.

More than 3.26 million votes were cast by absentee ballot in Michigan. It was from among that huge bloc of votes that those still-uncounted were still being tallied and they were expected, according to polling and other modeling done by the candidates, to continue to swing toward Biden, the former vice president. Overall turnout had already topped 5.39 million, well over the record of about 5 million in the 2008 election.

More:What comes after Nov. 3? Here's what could happen if Michigan's results are contested

More:Trump falsely claims he has won election, even though ballots are still being counted

A similar situation was possible in Pennsylvania, where Trump led 52%-47% with 86% of the vote counted. Together, the two states account for 36 Electoral College votes, which could ultimately decide which of the candidates gets to the 270 needed to clinch the White House.

A Philadelphia election worker processes mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election in the United States at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Nov. 3, 2020, in Philadelphia.

Biden also won Wisconsin and its 10 Electoral College vote, another state Trump flipped in shattering the Democratic "blue wall" in the Upper Midwest in 2016, with the AP calling the race Wednesday afternoon despite Biden's having a slim 20,517-vote lead — equal to about seven-tenths of 1% — with 99% of the vote counted.

Four years ago, Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania each by less than 1% of the vote, however, shattering what had been the Democrats' vaunted "blue wall" in the Rust Belt. 

Trump campaign officials, however, said Wednesday they were confident they would win, arguing that Arizona, which the AP had already projected Biden to win, would remain in the president's column once a batch of some 500,000 absentee ballots were counted and predicted their margin in Pennsylvania was insurmountable. They also claimed Nevada, a Democratic state where Biden had a slim lead of less than 8,000 votes, or about six-tenths of 1%, could shift and that they could still win Michigan and Wisconsin.

"We are confident in our pathway, we are confident in our math," said Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, who predicted absentee votes from Republican-leaning Michigan counties will increase the president's margin there and suggested Democrats are trying to count illegally cast "late" ballots though there is no proof of that. "We know if we count all legal ballots, we win," he said.

But by afternoon the Trump campaign had turned to mounting legal challenges to the election. The Trump campaign signaled it would ask for a recount in Wisconsin, though it cannot formally do so until the vote is formally certified in each county and finalized by the state in the coming weeks. Under Wisconsin's rules, a losing candidate can request a candidate if he or she is within 1 percentage point of the winner.

In Michigan, the Trump campaign said it had filed a lawsuit in the state Court of Claims asking that a count of ballots be halted because its poll watchers had been denied "meaningful access" to observe counting in several locations. It also demanded it be given a chance to review ballots in those locations, though it didn't immediately say where they were. A copy of the lawsuit wasn't immediately available.

The AP reported the Trump campaign made a similar demand in Pennsylvania and asked the U.S. Supreme Court for permission to intervene in a case questioning whether votes received in Pennsylvania by clerks three days after the election should be counted.

Under state law, a candidate can request a recount in Michigan but has to certify which precincts, out of the thousands across the state, he or she wants recounted, explain why a recount in that precinct is warranted and pay a per-precinct deposit which increases depending on the size of the margin between the candidates.

It was reminiscent of the 2000 election, in which questions about the vote count in Florida led to a month-long delay in George W. Bush being declared the winner after the U.S. Supreme Court intervened.

Biden campaign officials said Wednesday they are equally confident of the outcome, believing they will win both Michigan and Pennsylvania, and noted that if Trump doesn't want more votes to be counted it would actually help their candidate.

"If Donald Trump got his wish and we stopped counting ballots right now, Vice President Biden would be the next president of the United States," said Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon.

Speaking in Wilmington, Biden didn't mention Trump by name and sounded a conciliatory tone. "Once this election is finalized and behind us, it will be time to do what we always do as Americans and put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us... to hear each other again."

"We have to stop treating our opponents as enemies," he said. "We are not enemies."

Biden, however, signaled that his campaign would fight as hard as needed to ensure that any votes cast are counted. "Every vote must be counted," he said. "No one's going to take our democracy away from us."

Trump suggests he could take outcome to Supreme Court

Early Wednesday, Trump falsely claimed he had won the election, with millions of votes to be counted, saying there weren't enough votes left to be counted in Pennsylvania to swing the outcome, even though that is untrue. Casting doubt again on the validity of mail-in ballots, he said he would be "going to the U.S. Supreme Court" to take steps to stop the count, even though every presidential election sees counting of absentee balloting go on for days at times.

President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 4, 2020, in Washington.

"This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election," Trump said, despite clear evidence that not all the votes had been counted and millions left uncounted as of early Wednesday could swing the result.

Biden, who somewhat earlier had said the results looked good and urged his supporters to have patience as the absentee ballots were counted in the coming hours and days, called Trump's statement "outrageous, unprecedented and incorrect."

Bob Bauer, campaign legal adviser to Biden, suggested Trump was posturing in his remarks. "If you go to the Supreme Court today, drive around the building, you will not see Donald Trump and you will not see his lawyer. He is not going to the Supreme Court of the United States to get the voting to stop." 

Having confirmed new Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett just recently, Trump enjoys a 6-3 conservative majority on the court. Whether the election ends up before the justices or not, however, it was clear that Trump had done better than predicted by polls, holding on to Florida, Texas, Ohio and Iowa, states where he was said to be in trouble.

Polls also showed Biden with a strong edge in Michigan and Wisconsin and a somewhat smaller one in Pennsylvania, which, in the tally so far at least, hasn't emerged. 

Handicappers had said that Trump was expected to lose based on national and battleground state polling —, a statistical analysis site, said Trump had only a 10-in-100 chance of beating Biden — but it was clear that Trump's Election Day turnout as well as the uncounted absentee ballots had made the race impossible to call. 

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to supporters on Nov. 4, 2020, in Wilmington, Del., as he stands next to his wife Jill Biden.

But Biden did appear to have flipped Arizona, a key state that backed Trump in 2016, giving him 11 electoral votes that could held determine the outcome. With 84% of the expected vote in, the Associated Press projected Biden the winner, 51%-48%.

There remained questions for Trump, too, in North Carolina and Georgia, which the Associated Press hadn't called as of midafternoon Wednesday. In North Carolina, Trump had a 50%-49% edge with 94% of the vote counted; in Georgia, it was 50%-49% with 95% of the vote in. He won both in 2016.

Contact Todd Spangler Follow him on Twitter@tsspangler. Read more onMichigan politics and sign up for ourelections newsletter. Free Press staff writers Dave Boucher and Paul Egan contributed to this story.