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Michigan secretary of state refers GOP press release for 'misinformation' investigation

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office has referred a press release by the state's Republican Party about an unlocked ballot drop box for investigation "as election misinformation."

The Democrat's office announced the Wednesday referral to Attorney General Dana Nessel hours after the Michigan GOP sent out a statement titled "Ballot drop boxes left unlocked In Lansing." The statement featured videos posted on social media of a drop box in the city that was apparently left unlocked two weeks earlier and someone struggling to close the drop box this week.

The earlier video featured an unnamed person opening the apparently unlocked box and saying, "There are ballots. Nothing to see here ladies and gentlemen."

A video posted on social media shows an envelope in an apparently unlocked ballot drop box in Lansing. The video was taken before ballots were sent out in the city, according to election officials.

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope previously responded to the video on Facebook, saying the envelope pictured in the drop box was not a ballot envelope and the video was posted before Lansing voters received their ballots.

"My staff visited every drop box on Saturday the first day ballots were delivered," Swope said in a post last week. "The box had just been installed that afternoon by the Public Service Dept in anticipation of ballots being delivered on Saturday."

The Republican Party's statement argued that the videos were evidence of "gross negligence in the City of Lansing and its handling of ballots" and confirmed President Donald Trump’s claims about "the lack of security in our elections systems."

"Video evidence has surfaced repeatedly over the last month showing a ballot drop box in Lansing left unlocked, with ballots inside," the GOP statement added.

Without evidence, Trump has argued that there will be widespread fraud in the upcoming election as states expand mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I am calling on Secretary Benson to launch a full investigation into this incident to determine if any ballots were stolen or tampered with, and to ensure this never happens again," said Laura Cox, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party. "I stand with President Trump in his fight for the free, fair election Michiganders and all Americans, deserve."

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson during a press conference with The Detroit Pistons, in partnership with the Michigan Secretary of State's Office, revealing an official ballot drop box in front of the Detroit Pistons Performance Center in Detroit, Michigan on September 24, 2020.

Instead of an investigation into the drop box, Benson's office referred the GOP statement itself to Nessel's office for investigation, Benson's spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer said. Nessel is a fellow Democrat from Plymouth.

Jake Rollow, a spokesman for Benson's office, said Wednesday the first video was shot before ballots were mailed to voters and the envelope in the second video was "clearly not a ballot envelope."

"The claim there were 'ballots inside' is easily disproven by their own video," Rollow said. "By sharing blatantly false statements in the press release, they are irresponsibly spreading misinformation likely intended to suppress voting among Michigan citizens."

The ballot drop box in question is located outside a community center on Lansing's east side. The drop box wasn't functioning Wednesday and featured a sign that said it was "out of order."

Sandy Chapin of Lansing unsuccessfully attempted to use the drop box Wednesday to drop off her absentee ballot. Chapin said she had heard a news report about the box being unlocked earlier in the day.

"I wasn't really totally surprised, but I was disappointed," she said.

Lansing Clerk Swope couldn't immediately be reached about why the box was out of order. But a statement from his office said any Lansing resident can track whether their ballot is received through the website www.LansingVotes.com.

"Drop boxes are a safe and secure way to vote; we have security cameras on all the ones we have installed this year," Swope added.

In a Wednesday afternoon statement, Cox acknowledged the envelope in the unlocked box "may not have been an absentee ballot." But she said the video showed the box was unlocked.

"It’s amazing that when the Michigan Republican Party shares multiple videos demonstrating that a ballot box in Lansing has issues with its locking mechanism and calling for the Secretary of State to investigate, we find ourselves the subject of an investigation request," Cox said. "Clearly, Jocelyn Benson is more concerned with playing partisan games than she is about election integrity." 

Last week, Nessel filed felony charges against two out-of-state Republican operatives, Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, for allegedly orchestrating robocalls aimed at suppressing the vote in the Detroit area.

Benson announced Monday that more than 2.7 million voters across the state have requested mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 election, a 145% increase from the 2016 presidential race. 

cmauger@detroitnews.com