Voting group behind mystery requests in Michigan

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Chawanne Burns, 38, of Macomb Twp., prepares to cast her ballot at L'Anse Creuse Middle School as precinct workers facilitate their ballot processing, Tuesday afternoon, November 8, 2016.

A voting rights nonprofit affiliated with a Democratic super political action committee is behind the recent mystery public record requests that blanketed clerk’s offices around Michigan.

Priorities USA Foundation contracted a third party to send hundreds of public records requests to clerks throughout the state asking for copies of ballots and accompanying materials from the November 2016 election, the group confirmed Tuesday.

The nonpartisan foundation is a separate but affiliated entity with Priorities USA Action, a self-defined "progressive" super PAC that spent $6.4 million supporting Democrat Hillary Clinton and $126 million opposing Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. 

Among the super PAC's biggest donors in 2015-16 were George Soros, the liberal chairman of the Open Society Foundations; New York hedge fund manager James Simons; and Newsweb Corp. CEO Fred Eychaner of Chicago, according to Federal Election Commission filings. 

The Priorities USA Foundation was founded in 2017 and doesn't have any Internal Revenue Service returns that would indicate its funding sources. Nonprofits are not required to disclose donors.

The ballot requests were sent as part of a research project aiming “to determine whether any discrepancies exist in the ballot process across various states and precincts that might disproportionately affect certain communities, particularly communities of color and young people,” the foundation said in a statement.

The response came four days after Michigan Director of Elections Sally Williams said the public records requests sent en masse throughout Michigan had “unnerved” local clerks busy recovering from record turnouts in the August primary and preparing for the November general election.

The requests were signed by a woman referred to as “Emily” with no last name. Clerks were told to direct questions and Freedom of Information Act responses to a Gmail account or an Astoria, New York, post office box from the “United Impact Group.”

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.

Voting group behind mystery requests in Michigan

Though the ballots are anonymous, clerks were concerned about where the information requested would be sent, Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said. Knowing the group behind the requests could assuage some of those fears, he said. 

"It may give them some peace of mind," Woodhams said.  

Republican Secretary of State candidate Mary Treder Lang challenged her Democratic opponent Jocelyn Benson to denounce the efforts by Priorities USA because they distract clerks from preparing for the November election. 

"The Democratic Party is trying to rehash the 2016 presidential election recount," Treder Lang said in a statement. "Our county and municipal clerks have an important job to do and should not have to waste their time on an election that was already decided in 2016 ... twice."

Priorities USA Foundation did not immediately elaborate on the reason for the secretive nature of the requests. In response to questions regarding the processing cost to local clerks’ offices, the group said in an email:

“We know the clerks have an important job and want to make sure we are good partners in helping them fulfill the request in a timely manner. We’re happy to work with them to make this possible.”

Detroit estimated it would take about a year to process the request, and the price would be “very, very costly,” said Clerk Janice Winfrey. The city of Lansing estimated the request would take roughly 275 hours of staff time to complete, cost $12,000 and likely wouldn’t be complete until January.

A “representative sample of precincts” in Michigan were the first targeted by the in-depth public records requests aiming to explore procedures for provisional ballots; the consistency of ballot counting; discarded ballots; and under-voting, when a person casts a ballot for some but not all races, according to the foundation.

“The research will be looking into such potential issues as disparities in ballot counting procedures — especially among provisional ballots — and the impact of 'under-voting' and discarded ballots in these communities,” Priorities USA Foundation said in a statement.

President Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes over 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.

“During the partial statewide recount of the presidential race, 2 million paper ballots were reviewed by hand before the recount was stopped by the courts,” Woodhams said in an email. “The vote difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton changed by only 103 votes, demonstrating that there is no reason to believe that there were problems tallying the vote.”

Clinton gained 103 votes in the recount, but those votes weren't recognized when the courts struck down the recount.  

In 2016, Michigan had roughly 75,000 under-voted ballots in which voters filled out their ballots but did not mark a selection for president, according to Woodhams. Roughly 1,400 of those ballots were cast in Detroit.

The under-vote number was not dramatically higher than the 50,000 in 2012 and 40,000 in 2008, Woodhams said.

Given the record disapproval ratings for Trump and Clinton ahead of the election, "it’s not surprising to us that some people chose not to vote that ballot line," he said.

Precincts throughout Michigan in 2016 issued nearly 4,000 provisional ballots, which are given to voters who don't appear to be registered voters in the precinct but later show proof of their ability to vote there. Roughly 1,500 of the provisional ballots in 2016 were issued in Wayne County.

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