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Detroit — Southfield City Clerk Sherikia L. Hawkins was charged Monday with six felony counts over "unauthorized and inaccurate" changes to absentee ballots in the November 2018 election.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson made a joint announcement of the charges in Detroit, calling it a "rare" case.

"Voting is fundamental to the very essence of our democracy," Nessel said during a Monday news conference. "It is incumbent upon state governments to safeguard the electoral process and ensure that every voter's right to cast a ballot is protected."

Allegations that Hawkins altered 193 absentee voter records came to light during the 14-day canvass following the election. Benson said the Oakland County Clerk’s Office reported with the Bureau of Elections "the potential for these irregularities and from there we began our investigation." 

Hawkins' alleged actions, did not alter the outcome of any election, Benson stressed, and "there were no voters that were disenfranchised."

"All valid votes in the election were ultimately counted and the final official vote total was accurate," Benson said. 

Hawkins, a Democrat who just a few months ago was honored by the state party with the Dingell/Levin Award at its Legacy Dinner in Detroit, could not be reached Monday at her office for comment or a number listed in public records. Her attorney also could not be reached. 

The potential misconduct was referred to Michigan State Police for an investigation. Benson on Monday released few details, citing the ongoing criminal case. 

After taking office in January, Benson and Nessel, both Democrats, wanted to make sure the state's elections were protected from "every conceivable threat," Nessel said. 

"Every citizen must know that when they enter the ballot box, the vote that they cast will be counted and that the collective will of the voters will be carried out," Nessel said.

Hawkins,38, was arraigned Monday in 46th District Court in Southfield on the charges, which include election law-falsifying returns or records, forgery of a public record, misconduct in office and multiple counts of using a computer to commit a crime.

Forgery of a public record is a 14-year offense, Nessel said. 

According to an affidavit filed by Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Larissa LaMay, the lead investigator of the election fraud complaint, Oakland County Elections Director Joseph Rozell began working to certify the city's absentee precincts after the election.

When an absentee ballot arrives into a clerk's office, it is logged into the Qualified Voter File. The clerk then checks to make sure the file entries are valid. 

Rozell "contacted Hawkins when he noticed that ballot summary sheets were blank," LaMay's report notes.

Rozell, after questioning Hawkins about her ballot sheets, said it appeared "that the ballot return dates for voters were added or removed from the report in order to force the reports to balance to the number of ballots tabulated for each precinct on Election Night."

"It appears that Hawkins had switched her original reports with altered reports," LaMay wrote. 

The report notes that 193 absentee voter "Qualified Voter Files" were altered in the computer system. The records show that Hawkins' computer and unique name "made the alterations in the computer system to the QVF for these voters," the complaint says. 

Rozell was not available for comment. 

Benson said she sent a letter to Hawkins on Monday, saying that the pending charges compromise her ability to administer the upcoming Nov. 5 city election. In the interim, she said, the state's Bureau of Elections with work with staff in the Southfield clerk's office to handle all administration of elections in the city. 

"My office will remain actively involved" to ensure elections in Southfield run smoothly, Benson said. "Our response is careful, measured, swift and the consequences are severe."

Multiple City Council members could not be immediately reached on Monday. Two others, Myron Frasier and Tawnya Morris, declined to comment, saying they were not yet informed of the specifics. Mayor Kenson J. Siver's office deferred to the city's community relations department, which released a statement saying the city would conduct an internal investigation. 

"After the city has examined the underlying facts of this matter, we will explore all appropriate and legal avenues to protect the voting process and rights of the Southfield Citizenry," the statement issued by spokesman Michael Manion said. "Mrs. Hawkins will be on administrative leave with pay at this time." 

Hawkins is paid $101,500 per year in Southfield as the city's clerk. 

Longtime political consultant Mario Morrow said he was taken aback by the felony case.

"In my 30-plus years of political consulting, I have never seen anything like this to the extent that charges are brought against a sitting city clerk," he said. "It's a shocker. This has to be a wake-up call to all the clerks across Michigan to dot their i's and cross their t's."

In a statement, state Sen. Jeremy Moss and Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden, both Southfield Democrats, said they were "shocked by the charges brought against Clerk Hawkins."

“Absentee ballots will start to go out this week for the upcoming November municipal election and Secretary Benson has removed Clerk Hawkins from administering this election," the lawmakers' statement said. "We can assure our Southfield neighbors that their votes will be counted.” 

Hawkins made history in November 2017 as the first African-American elected as city clerk, according to the clerk's page on the city's website. She formerly served as Pontiac's city clerk. 

She also had administered 16 elections in Oakland County and holds a master municipal clerk designation from the International Institute of Municipal Clerks.

"Sherikia takes pride in using unconventional methods to engage the community in voting," the website says. 

Hawkins' term is set to expire in 2021. 

The prosecution of the charges is being led by the Public Integrity Unit of the Department of Attorney General, which ensures that public officials or law enforcement officers who commit crimes in Michigan, regardless of position, standing or party, are held accountable. 

In past years, clerks including Janice Winfrey in Detroit, have faced criticism over poll worker errors, missing ballots and mismatched tabulations. There also were problems under her predecessor, the late Jackie Currie. The clerks did not face any criminal charges related to the issues. 

Benson told reporters Monday the case is a "rare instance" and "certainly the first for either of us in any of our administrations."

cferretti@detroitnews.com

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