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Group sues Benson to get 193 voting records allegedly altered by Southfield clerk

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A nonprofit election integrity group filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to get access to voting records that resulted in felony charges last year against the Southfield clerk.

The complaint from the Indianapolis-based Public Interest Legal Foundation seeks the release of 193 voter history files that Clerk Sherikia Hawkins is alleged to have altered during the November 2018 election. The suit was filed in the Western District of Michigan U.S. District Court.

“The criminal allegations surrounding this case are alarming and must be fully studied to ensure that history doesn’t repeat,” said J. Christian Adams, a conservative attorney and president and general counsel for the foundation. “The public has a right to know about the voters who had their votes canceled.”

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, left, answers questions from media during a press conference with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on election fraud charges against Southfield City Clerk Sherikia L. Hawkins.

The lawsuit wasn't filed until Wednesday because the foundation first attempted to gain the records from Southfield last year, then Oakland County, then Benson's office. When the Detroit Democrat  refused to allow a review of the records, the foundation had to wait 90 days under federal law before filing suit to allow for a potential reversal of Benson's decision.

The Secretary of State's office said it had not yet been served with the law

Hawkins was charged in September and bound over for trial in June on six felony charges related to falsifying absentee ballot records in 2018. Specifically, 38-year-old Hawkins is alleged to have altered entries in the qualified voter file for 193 voters.

As clerk, Hawkins was tasked with ensuring absentee ballots were entered validly into the Qualified Voter File when they arrive at the office. The list later is used to ensure the number of ballots tabulated on Election Night is equal to the number of absentee ballots received.

After the 2018 election, the Oakland County elections director noticed the ballot summary sheets were blank, according to an affidavit filed in the case.

When Director Joseph Rozell questioned Hawkins about the missing information, “the ballot return dates for voters were added or removed from the report in order to force the reports to balance with the number of ballots tabulated for each precinct on Election Night.”

“The (original) reports were discovered in a trash can at the election division office in Pontiac,” the Wednesday complaint said.

Benson said in September that Hawkins’ actions did not appear to have disenfranchised any voters.

The foundation, in its Wednesday complaint, said it sought the voter history records through a public record request to determine which Southfield residents were subject to a cancellation of their vote. It also is seeking to determine whether the individuals whose voting history records were altered are aware of the situation. 

“The Foundation merely requests these voter history records as they will indicate the registrants who sent voted absentee ballots to Hawkins and for whom Hawkins has been charged with cancelling their vote,” the complaint said.

Sherikia L. Hawkins

The voting history data should be considered list maintenance records subject to disclosure under federal law, the complaint argues, but Benson denied the request and argued that federal law did not require the disclosure of the files because they were not “voter registration or voter registration cancellation records.”

“…the voting history records that Secretary Benson is withholding are part of the process of identifying whether a registrant should or should not be removed from the rolls,” the complaint said. “The voting history records are essential to conduct list maintenance and thus are list maintenance records subject to disclosure under the (National Voting Rights Act).”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com