Benson accused of letting 'partisan operatives' influence election

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

A group of Michigan voters are suing Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on claims she's allowed "partisan operatives" to dole out millions of dollars in private money for get-out-the-vote initiatives in select Democratic cities and counties ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in the Michigan Court of Claims, alleges the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life gave money to county and local clerks in the battleground state to print and distribute absentee ballots and mail-in ballots and add drop boxes. The goal was to increase ballots cast "in only certain urban and predominantly Democratic precincts" and "selectively influence the outcome of the 2020 general election," according to the filing.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says she cannot "in good conscience" appear before the House Oversight Committee, which has been probing unsubstantiated fraud claims about the Nov. 3 vote.

Plaintiffs Dan Ryan and Myron Zolkewsky of Oakland County, Paul Driscoll of Macomb County and Joellen Pisarczyk of Livingston County reflect the "interested voters in Michigan who want a fair playing field," said Thor Hearne, an attorney with True North Law in St. Louis, the lead law firm on the case. At least three of plaintiffs appear to be Republican Party members. 

"The Michigan Constitution guarantees all eligible voters in Michigan, including these citizens, the right to cast a ballot in the upcoming general election," according to the lawsuit. “These Michigan voters have suffered, or will suffer, an irreparable constitutional injury that is the result of Secretary Benson’s failure to exercise her duty to oversee and regulate the conduct of the 2020 general election.”

The office for Benson, a Democrat, declined to comment Tuesday on the lawsuit. The center said it was "frivolous."

The infusion of private money, the filing contends, violates state law that calls for jurisdictions to use public — not private — funds for such voter initiatives. By allowing this, Benson has diminished the voting rights of certain Michigan residents and failed to uphold her constitutional and statutory duty, the plaintiffs contend. 

Since July, the center has paid at least $3.5 million to Wayne County and Detroit; $467,625 to Flint; $417,000 to Ann Arbor; $443,000 to Lansing and $8,500 to East Lansing; $433,580 to Muskegon; $402,878 to Saginaw; and $218,869 to Kalamazoo, according to the Monday filing. 

In total, $5.9 million was paid to urban, predominantly Democratic district election officials, Hearne said.

"It is really unseemly to have private groups paying local officials," Hearne told The Detroit News. "If anyone wants to be partisan operatives just do so in a way that complies with the rules and doesn't undermine the integrity of the election."

The Center for Tech and Civic Life called the litigation "frivolous."

"To date, 385 election departments across the State of Michigan have requested and received CTCL COVID-19 Response Grants," the statement reads. "This includes election departments in Oakland, Macomb and Livingston counties. As election officials work to serve voters in these final weeks of the 2020 election, their most valuable asset is time. This frivolous litigation is wasting election officials' time at the voter's expense, while also peddling misinformation."

Hearne said the plaintiffs hope to have a hearing within the next week. The case is assigned to Court of Claims Chief Judge Christopher Murray, a former deputy legal counsel to Republican former Gov. John Engler. 

Hearne said the plaintiffs are seeking a ruling that would require Benson to order the jurisdictions pay the money back to the center or direct the same amount of funding to Benson's office to ensure it's equally provided to all state election jurisdictions.

The lawsuit asserts Benson violated the Michigan Constitution and state election law by allowing the interest group "with a declared political agenda to selectively and privately fund how election authorities in predominantly Democratic precincts conduct elections."

Ann Arbor City Clerk Jacqueline Beaudry said Tuesday that the allegations the grant award was for "get-out-the-vote" initiatives is "not accurate."

"It is to be used exclusively for the public purpose of planning and operationalizing safe and secure election administration," Beaudry wrote in an email. "To this end, we have received funding to secure and train an adequate number of election inspectors in a pandemic, acquire new voting equipment and ballot boxes to manage the increased demand for absentee ballots, and other measures related to the changing nature of elections this year during these challenging times."

The clerk said the funding was awarded to the city and accepted by the Ann Arbor City Council. Beaudry said she can't speak to what Benson did or did not allow "as we did not apply for this grant through the Secretary of State's Office."

"We applied directly with the Center for Technology and Civic Life, although the Michigan Bureau of Elections did promote the grant opportunity to all Michigan clerks and I have heard many clerks, large and small, from all over the state announce that they received funding," she said.

Lisa Williams-Jackson, a spokeswoman for Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett, said in an email that the office does not comment on pending litigation. Clerks in the other communities listed in the lawsuit could not be immediately reached for comment. 

The filing contends CTCL is a successor to the New Organizing Institute, a progressive group that ended operations in 2015. But CTCL said the institute no longer exists and that CTCL is a nonpartisan nonprofit that does not support or oppose any candidate for office.

On its website, CTCL writes it connects Americans with information to become and remain civically engaged, and ensure elections are more professional, inclusive and secure.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg contributed a $250 million toward the center's initiatives in battleground states like Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan, Hearne said. 

"When you have private billionaires paying millions of dollars to try to influence the election that, at a minimum, undermines the integrity of the election and the people's confidence in it," he said. "This sort of gaming the system and plan, it's just not good for the nation."

Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said Benson's office shared information about CFCL with Michigan's county and municipal clerks and all had an opportunity to apply. She did not seek out any of the funding.

"We already had an opportunity through the CARES Act to get extra equipment and things we would need at the county level," Brown said. "It seemed to me that they were offering up the same sort of thing."