Mystery group blankets Michigan seeking ballots from 2016 election

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
People enter the voting precinct on Tuesday outside Warren Community Center in Warren.

Clerks around the state are getting blanketed with requests to turn over every ballot cast in the 2016 election, as they try to recover from record turnouts in the August primary and prepare for November.

The new challenge comes compliments of a woman named "Emily" with no last name.

Nearly every clerk in Michigan has received Freedom of Information Act requests signed by Emily asking for copies of every ballot cast in the 2016 presidential election — whether at the polls or by absentee ballot. Voter signature cards have even been sought.

“It’s unnerved a lot of the clerks, rightfully so,” Michigan Director of Elections Sally Williams said Friday.

Ballots do not contain identifying information and, as such, are subject to disclosure under a public records request, Williams said. The Michigan Secretary of State's office has cautioned the numerous clerks who have called for advice to obtain a deposit for the request and to make sure the check doesn’t bounce, Williams said.

The requests, originally reported by the subscription news service Michigan Information and Research Services, were sent from an Astoria, New York, post office box from the “United Impact Group.” The group did not respond to a call and email seeking comment.

The requests ask for all election day, absentee and provisional ballots from the 2016 presidential election; ballots that were not counted and the reason they weren’t counted; and accompanying materials such as the envelopes in which the absentee ballots were sent. Some precincts were asked for the polling books listing the names of those who voted, Williams said.

President Donald Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton in an election in which about 4.8 million votes were cast. The courts ended up stopping a recount requested by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein since she had no shot of winning and thus wasn't an aggrieved candidate under state law.

Williams said, to her knowledge, Michigan is the only state to have received the recent ballot requests. 

Ballot retention requirement

State law requires local clerks to keep their ballots on hand for 22 months after an election — a retention schedule that would expire in September, Williams said. She has advised clerks to keep the ballots even after that date because of Emily's public records requests. 

The pending expiration of the retention period may be what's driving the timing of the sudden record request onslaught, said Mark Grebner, an attorney at Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing. 

In the past 40 years, Grebner has filed more than 10,000 public records requests and litigated dozens of cases resulting from those requests in an effort to collect, collate and analyze voter information for clients. 

The records request from the United Impact Group, he said, is "ham-handed" and could cost the group millions of dollars to complete. 

"You could actually do this and have it be more usable for much less money," Grebner said.

A couple of teams could travel from city to city with scanners to make digital copies, or the requester could make an arrangement with clerks to just take the ballots before they're scheduled for the shredder in September, he noted.

Grebner guessed the requester could be a conspiracy theorist who felt the 2016 election was stolen, Nonetheless, he said, such a request could provide interesting information about voter behavior — whether someone votes only for women or only for people with Irish names or votes a straight Democratic ticket until it comes to judicial picks. 

"By actually looking at the individual markings on the ballot, you could find out a lot about the patterns by which people vote," Grebner said. "That could be very useful politically.”

Requests carry large costs

The city of Detroit estimates it would take about a year to process the request, given the city’s hundreds of precincts and the fact that the ballot two years ago was two pages long, said Clerk Janice Winfrey. The city’s lawyers are reviewing the request.

“It would be very, very costly to the city of Detroit,” Winfrey said.

The request sent to Lansing asked for 11 items and will take roughly 275 hours of staff time to complete, Clerk Chris Swope said. He estimated the request would cost roughly $12,000 and the city wouldn’t be able to complete it until January.

“It’s a pretty expansive request,” Swope said, noting he’s never received a public records request similar to the one he received Monday.

“I’m trying to figure out exactly what their goal is,” he said.

The Pontiac clerk’s office is in the process of calculating how much it would cost to process the request, “but we are nowhere near done,” election specialist Annette Wesley said.

The Pontiac clerk’s office has never have received such a request before, noting the request asked for signatures for all of the voters and information on the voters’ information cards.

“Everything about the request was unusual,” Wesley said.

In the west Michigan community of Kentwood, Clerk Dan Kasunic responded to the United Impact Group request Friday by asking for a deposit of roughly half of the estimated $7,500 cost and for clarification on the request.

He asked whether the group would be satisfied with a report on how many absentee ballots were requested and returned rather than the actual ballots, which would have some information in need of redaction.

Kasunic said he can't remember ever receiving a request "so onerous."

"I’m not sure what they're trying to figure out," Kasunic said. "It's not going to change the results.”

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