'Emily' document request spurs House plan for public records
Lansing — People or groups asking for public election records would be required to include their full name, address and contact information under legislation approved late Wednesday by the Michigan House months after a mysterious request from "Emily."
The bill also would allow local elections clerks to consider a Freedom of Information Act request "abandoned" if the requester does not make any required "good-faith" deposit within 45 days, and clerks would not have to produce documents.
The proposal from Republican Rep. Jim Lilly, R-Park Township, arose from a FOIA request sent in August to local clerks across the state asking for copies of ballots and accompanying materials from the November 2016 election. The requests were signed by a woman referred to as “Emily” with no last name listed.
Clerks were told to direct questions and responses to a gmail account or an Astoria, New York, post office box from the “United Impact Group.”
In the midst of a busy election cycle, “local clerks were faced with more work at a very busy time of year,” Lilly said at a committee hearing on the bill Wednesday. “This FOIA request led me to pursue the legislation you have before you today.”
The group behind the requests later was revealed to be a nonprofit affiliated with the Democratic super political action committee Priorities USA Action.
The group said it sent the requests as part of a research project “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."
Township, county and municipal associations voiced support for the bill at the committee hearing as a way to address the confusion prompted by the August FOIA. Some townships still are waiting to hear back from the group after responding with a cost estimate to process the requests, said Chris Hackbarth of the Michigan Municipal League.
The FOIA requests created “a lot of concern, a lot of questions, huge workload,” Hackbarth said. “This was the first time we had a request of that size.”
One township responded with the requested documentation and four others received full payment for the FOIA, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Secretary of State Office.The tally is dependent on reporting from local clerks and may not be comprehensive, he said.
The legislation, approved in a 99-10 vote, heads to the Michigan Senate for consideration next week in the final days of the lame-duck session.