Antrim County, Michigan, seemed an unlikely setting for the attempted overthrow of an American election.
In the mitten shape of the state’s lower peninsula, Antrim makes up a fingertip in the far north. It sits on the eastern side of Grand Traverse Bay, which took its name from French voyagers who in the eighteenth century paddled canoes across its lonesome width: la grand traverse, they called it.
About twenty-three thousand people live in Antrim. Many work in fruit production, including the cherry farms that make the region the “cherry capital of the world.” They grow sweet cherries and sour: Montmorency cherries, Balaton tart cherries. Cavaliers, Sams, Emperor Francises, Golds, and a particular local favorite, Ulsters.
In spring, those cherry trees cover the landscape with pink and white blossoms. And the county features what people here call the chain of lakes, a series of fourteen terraced lakes and rivers starting with Beals Lake at the top and finally flowing into the Grand Traverse. The largest and deepest body in the chain is Torch Lake, where long ago Native Americans fished by torchlight. Today Antrim’s residents sail their boats up and down its length on turquoise waters.
So Antrim County sits on a peninsular outcrop, its people are few and scattered, and its landscape is sublime. All of which makes it seem outlandish as the stage for what followed: private jets arriving in the night, intrigue, threats of violence, and an effort to subvert the will of the American people.
Election Day started with coffee for Sheryl Guy. She poured it from the old Bunn coffeepot into her teal-colored mug. Then she placed a lid on the mug because you never know what might go wrong.
Life had carried the Antrim county clerk toward this moment since her first breath in a sense. In a concrete-block room, here in the Antrim County Building, her own birth certificate sits in a chunky black binder: Baby Sheryl Ann, born May 1961, eight pounds and ten ounces.
She graduated from the local high school on a Friday, and the next Monday she started work in the county building as a receptionist. She worked her way up and sat in every chair in the building along the way: clerk 1 and 2, deputy 1 and 2, chief deputy, administrator. For thirty-one years she worked under the previous county clerk, whom she viewed as a mother figure and who granted Sheryl—maiden name Kirts then—a license to marry her high school sweetheart, Alan.
Now Guy was almost sixty and county clerk herself. The people of Antrim had elected her for the job eight years earlier, and she loved it. It’s a small county, so on Election Day she and her staff of four handled election duties along with the everyday responsibilities: collecting court fees, paying the county’s bills, certifying births and marriages. “Busy,” she said.
The vote itself went smoothly. Michigan counties are divided into grid-like townships, which are home to what they call villages: Elk Rapids village, Central Lake village, and so forth. People across the county voted on issues specific to their villages—on school boards, on a proposed marijuana shop—and bigger questions like the US presidency. There was a last-minute change, adding a candidate for village trustee to the ballot, but people voted without confusion or incident. Guy voted to reelect both Trump and herself.
Poll workers in precincts around Antrim fed people’s ballots into scanners, which printed out tally tapes that looked like thirty-foot strips of receipt paper. The scanners also recorded the votes on memory cards.
At about 6:00 p.m., Guy walked from the county building to buy dinner for the staff—“the girls”—at Short’s, a pub that sells sandwiches with names like “Sketches of Winkle” (salami) and “Old Man Thunder” (braised beef). They worked while they ate, and after the polls closed the results started to come in. Poll supervisors from around the county brought their memory cards to Guy at the county office, and she plugged those results into her central computer. It placed the votes into what amounted to a spreadsheet, sorting about sixteen thousand votes into columns and rows.
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It took hours. Guy is quick to admit she’s not technologically adept. “I’m not a techie person,” she said. “I type, and I use my computer when I have to.”
They finished just before 5:00 a.m., in total exhaustion. Guy had spent hour after hour peering at the columns and rows and, by the end, was too tired to step back, figuratively, and consider a broader view of the election. She knew she, a Republican, had won reelection as county clerk because she ran unopposed. But she felt too weary to even note how many votes she got. She registered, vaguely, that Joe Biden had won the presidential vote.
She locked the office about 5:00 a.m. and headed home briefly to shower. No time for sleep. She said a brief good morning to Alan, a machinist, then gave him a goodbye peck and drove back toward her office. Along the way she stopped at McDonald’s to buy breakfast for the girls, who wanted sausage and egg McMuffins. Between placing her order and arriving at the pickup window, she received an email from an early-rising citizen who had seen reports of the presidential vote in Antrim. The short message was ominous: “Things don’t look right.”
The results she had posted, unofficially, showed Joe Biden beating Donald Trump by about 3,200 votes, which would be nearly impossible in a county as reliably Republican as Antrim. That kind of sudden shift in long-standing voting patterns signaled a problem, and the realization awoke Guy like a shock of cold water. “Oh CROW,” she cried. She wanted to race to the office but could only sit trapped in the drive-through. Finally, after picking up the McMuffins, she gunned her car toward the county building.
She quickly put out a statement on Antrim’s official Facebook page. “By this afternoon, we expect to have a clear answer and a clear plan of action addressing any issue,” she said. “Until then, we are asking all interested parties to bear with us while we get to the bottom of this.”
That sounded confident enough, but inwardly she felt baffled. What could’ve happened? She suspected a culprit: computers. They probably weren’t talking to each other right. So all day, she and her staff totaled up votes directly from the official tape printed at each precinct and entered that by hand into the central computer. Then they republished the results, which now showed Trump as victor.
But a new problem arose. Now the totals showed more than eighteen thousand votes, which was two thousand too many.
Sheryl Guy took down the published numbers and tried to regroup. But by now, the world had noticed something was off kilter in Antrim County. On November 6, the New York Post published a story that began, “President Trump’s supporters are pointing to a small Michigan county as evidence that vote-counting software used in the state may undercut Trump’s number of votes.”
The days that followed were a blur of meetings and calls with county attorneys and software programmers, and through the haze, a thought gradually dawned in Guy’s mind: I did this. It’s my fault.
When she added that last-minute candidate for village trustee to the ballots, she should have updated the counting machines with the new parameters. But she hadn’t. So when the numbers started rolling in, they dropped into the wrong columns. A little over two thousand Trump votes had been shifted to Biden’s column. Her error.
Then when she had tried to fix the issue, entering the correct numbers directly into the central computer, she hadn’t zeroed out the mistaken ones. So she had published a stack of both wrong and right totals.
“It’s a horrible mistake,” she told the county’s attorneys. “I own it.” She said the same to people who called the office to complain, to her neighbors, to the county commissioners.
At last, the night of November 6, the team of people working on the problem had stripped away all the compounded mistakes—they rescanned all ballots—and published the correct tally of votes: a win for Trump, by 3,800 votes. The county board of canvassers examined the results and certified them. The system worked as intended. The mistake had been noticed immediately. It had been investigated and corrected. It seemed, that night, like the end of a terrible episode in Guy’s public life.
That was her greatest miscalculation. The plot about to unfold in out-of-the-way Antrim County would render her a pariah in the community she’d called home since birth, and tear at the social fabric of Antrim itself. It would threaten to overthrow the election of the president of the United States.
And it would turn on a single ballot in Antrim County: a vote for the local marijuana shop.
The call came December 4, a Friday evening. The weekend had started, but Sheryl Guy answered her phone anyway.
On the other end of the line she found sixty-year-old Bill Bailey, an Antrim County real estate agent and fellow Republican.
“We’ve got an order from the judge, Sheryl,” he told her. “We need access to the machines.”
What? she thought.
She knew Bailey had sued the county after Election Day but never expected anything to come of it. Now, sure enough, he had a decision from Circuit Court judge Kevin Elsenheimer that Bailey faced “irreparable harm” as a voter.
“Specifically, in the recent election, the Village of Central Lake included a proposed initiated ordinance to authorize one marihuana retailer establishment within the village,” the judge wrote, using the spelling for marijuana common in Michigan officialdom.
On Election Day, residents in small Central Lake village had voted for both president of the United States and whether to let a pot shop open downtown, across from the post office. The marijuana vote tied at 262–262, which meant it didn’t pass. After the election, during the rescan of Antrim County’s ballots, the Dominion machines wouldn’t accept three ballots, like a vending machine rejecting a crinkled dollar bill. So two election workers, one Republican and one Democrat, transferred the marks on two of them to fresh ballots. They scanned fine. But the third unscannable ballot was peculiar—it didn’t show any mark for or against the marijuana shop and shouldn’t have been counted in the first place. It was the statistical oddball inevitable in any election. So the two workers didn’t count it as a vote for or against the pot store.
The new total, 262–261, meant that the proposal passed.
The judge wrote, “Plaintiff argues that failure to include the damaged ballots in the retabulation resulted in the marihuana proposal passing and violated his constitutional right to have his vote counted. The temporary, let alone total, loss of a constitutional right constitutes irreparable harm which cannot be adequately remedied by an action at law.”
So Bailey and his lawyer, the judge ordered, could access and photograph the county’s central computer, Dominion machines, thumb drives, memory cards. And they needed access right away, Bailey said. A team was coming in . . . get this . . . by private jet.
“Sheryl, this isn’t about you, ya know,” he told her. The private jet was a clue that it wasn’t really about the pot shop either.
Two hours later, Rudy Giuliani tweeted:
Some powerful people had been snooping around on Bailey’s behalf. For instance, the lawyer Katherine Friess, a member of Trump’s legal team, had called Guy at her office.
“We want to clear your name,” Friess told her, according to Guy. She wanted access to Antrim County’s equipment. “You want to show that this isn’t you.”
But Guy knew it was her. Her mistake.
“I think she tried to woo me,” Guy said. Friess contacted election workers in the townships, too, Guy said, and tried to impress them with tales of recent dinners with Trump and Giuliani.
On Sunday, December 6, Trump’s attorney Jenna Ellis removed any doubt about who was behind the push in Antrim. She told Fox News, “Our team is going to be able to go in there this morning and we’ll be there for about eight hours to conduct that forensic examination.”
Within hours, the team—ostensibly working to bring down a local pot shop—arrived at Sheryl Guy’s office from all over the country, led by Dallas-based Allied Security Operations Group, or ASOG. Its operatives arrived and took pictures of the machines, the memory cards, the red canvas zipper pouches in which election workers carried them. Sheryl Guy stood watching from a corner as they moved through her office.
This was a pivotal moment, not just in Antrim County but across Michigan and perhaps the country. If the pro-Trump team could show Dominion machines were vulnerable in some way, they could cast doubt on the election as a whole. Biden won Michigan by an untouchable margin of 154,000-plus votes. But the Trump team planned to stir up enough doubt about the votes that the Republican-led state legislature could step in and simply hand the victory to Trump.
A week after its visit to Guy’s office, ASOG released a report about Antrim County that might have had a profound influence elsewhere in the country. More than any other document, it outlined the narrative of a stolen election and, ultimately, undermined Americans’ faith in the vote.
It began by succinctly stating the conspiracy theory that would grip Trump and his supporters: “We conclude that the Dominion Voting System is intentionally and purposefully designed with inherent errors to create systemic fraud and influence election results.”
The report warned of potential “advanced persistent threats and outside attacks” from hackers and denied Sheryl Guy’s admission of her own mistake: “The statement attributing these issues to human error is not consistent with the forensic evaluation, which points more correctly to systemic machine and/or software errors.”
Then the report delivered the sentence the Trump campaign hoped for most: “Because the same machines and software are used in 48 other counties in Michigan, this casts doubt on the integrity of the entire election in the state of Michigan.”
Shortly after the report’s release, Trump tweeted, “WOW. This report shows massive fraud. Election changing result!”
Immediately after that, Trump directed aide Molly Michael to email the report to the Department of Justice with the subject line, “From POTUS.” It included a set of “Antrim County Talking Points” for Jeff Rosen, soon to be acting attorney general.
The talking points were breathtaking and included “This is the evidence that Dominion Voting machines can and are being manipulated.”
And “This is not human error as we have proven.”
And “This is a Cover-up of voting crimes.”
This strategy required that Sheryl Guy not be a mildly bumbling county clerk but a techno-criminal mastermind. People believed it. She received a deluge of voicemail, letters, and sideways glances on the street from neighbors she’d known her whole life. They took the word of inter-state political operatives motivated by enormous power and wealth, rather than her, the local clerk who had certified their births and marriages. People called her a liar, a fake Republican, and a whole dictionary of vulgar names. She was “stupid” and “should be put in front of a military firing squad.” They called her, in the only way she could bear to tell it, “an f ’ing c.” They called for her death and for her disgrace, not because she had draped herself in glory but because she had admitted her own mistake—because she had told the truth.
Bill Bailey disagreed, of course. But did he truly believe Sheryl Guy, the Republican grandmother who struggles with her smartphone, perpetrated a sophisticated digital crime?
“I got a different view of Sheryl that I didn’t have at the beginning because I’ve always thought she’s just a sweet woman,” he said. “She’s very emboldened now. A different girl than I knew, I can tell you that.”
But did she pull off an electoral heist?
He hesitated. “I got a feeling that there was some pretty nefarious stuff that happened across the country, including here in Antrim County,” he said. Then he added, “I personally don’t think the clerks know about it.”
After Bailey’s team descended on Guy’s office but before their inflammatory report, the local newspaper, the Record-Eagle, found a scoop. The judge had made a mistake: Bailey didn’t actually live in Central Lake Village, site of the proposed marijuana shop. The “marihuana” question had not been on his ballot, so he couldn’t have voted for or against it. He suffered no “irreparable harm.”
But the damage to Sheryl Guy had been done.
For a long time afterward, she cried often at home. Her husband, Alan, encouraged her to resign. Four decades of public service was enough. And Antrim County was changing underneath her anyway. Even the farm stands were polarized now; Republicans bought their cherries from Friske’s, not King’s, because Friske’s defied the pandemic mask mandate. And there were the right-wing militias. Just weeks before Election Day, the FBI arrested fourteen men for allegedly plotting to kidnap the governor at her house in Antrim County.
At first, Antrim County had seemed so unlikely as the setting of a major attack on an American election. But the qualities that made it seem that way—its rural remove, its small population, its Luddite clerk and drowsy judge—in reality made it ideal as a political target.
Guy retreated from society. “You feel like you can’t get air, you’re just . . .” her voice faded. “I drank a little more, I ate a little more.”
“I drank a lot of Mike’s Hard Lemonade,” she said. “I was drinking the Mike’s Hard and then I started diluting it with Crystal Light and ice, so I wasn’t drinking as much.”
As she talked, a couple walked into the clerk’s office and approached the counter. They were both twenty-four years old and nervous. They needed a marriage license, please.
“That’ll be $20,” Guy said. They seemed so young. Babies to her. She pulled out her old mechanical embossing stamp and made it official. They beamed, then exited, leaving her alone in the office once more.
She doesn’t plan on running for county clerk again.
Excerpted from The Steal by Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague, courtesy Atlantic Monthly Press. Copyright 2022 by Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague.
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