Secretary of State Benson: State auditors want to 'recreate' election reviews

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has asked Attorney General Dana Nessel to determine whether state auditors have the power to obtain local election records amid lingering claims about the 2020 vote.

In a July 12 letter that was uncovered by FOIA Services Michigan, Benson told Nessel that employees of the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) want "to recreate the audits conducted by the county clerks." The leader of the auditor general's office was appointed by the GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature and the office is housed in the legislative branch, but it acts as an autonomous agency.

The revelation of the ongoing auditor general probe and Benson's concerns about it come as some Republican lawmakers in the battleground state have pressed for a new audit of the 2020 results. Former President Donald Trump also continues to levy unsubstantiated claims of fraud.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, left, and Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey talked about early absentee voting earlier this year. Benson said she opposes having the Office of the Auditor General do audits of the Bureau of Elections' election audits.

"Were the OAG to come to an audit result different from county clerks because of these inherent practical challenges, such an outcome would ... feed the many baseless false, fabricated and misleading claims involving the November 2020 election," Benson wrote in her letter to Nessel.

So far, many GOP legislators in Michigan have resisted calls for another statewide review of the vote, like what's taking place in Arizona, but some have said they could change their minds if new evidence comes to light.

Both Benson and Nessel are Democrats. In November, Trump lost Michigan to Democrat Joe Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points. Despite unproven claims of wrongdoing in the election, a series of court rulings, dozens of reviews by election officials and bipartisan boards of canvassers as well as an investigation by state Senate Republicans have reinforced the outcome.

More than 250 election audits have already been completed in Michigan, Benson's office said in March.

According to the Office of the Auditor General, it's currently examining the sufficiency of "post-election review procedures" and efforts to provide training for local election officials. The audit had been planned for the non-election year, office spokeswoman Kelly Miller said.

In March, state Rep. Julie Alexander, R-Hanover, asked the office to review Michigan's "election processes to help ensure their security and accuracy." Among her requests was for the office to consider "the process involved in the statewide risk-limiting audit that was conducted after the general election."

The Michigan Bureau of Elections argues that the state auditors' interest in "recreating audits" is well-intentioned but "fears that the outcome will become another avenue to cast doubt upon and re-litigate the outcome of the November election," Benson said in her letter to Nessel.

Benson asked Nessel, the state's top law enforcement official, to determine whether employees of the Office of the Auditor General can physically handle election records without violating laws that give the power to manage the records to election officials.

The secretary of state also asked Nessel to decide whether the Office of the Auditor General, which usually examines the work of state agencies, has the power to request the election records from local governments.

Benson's spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer said state election officials are concerned whether the state auditors will be able to replicate the processes carried out by election clerks.

"The OAG has said it wants to audit the post-election audits carried out by local township, city and county election officials," Wimmer said. "As these local officials aren’t a part of state government, it’s quite possible that for the state to audit them would not just be government overreach, it would be illegal under our state constitution.

"For this reason, we asked the attorney general for an opinion on how the law applies in this situation."

According to Benson's letter to Nessel, the Office of the Auditor General wants to review a "significant volume of local election records, including poll books and other polling place records, public notices issued and records of testing conducted."

It will be "logistically difficult to ensure that all records are organized and preserved in the exact same format as was the case during the audit," Benson wrote of the initial previously conducted reviews.

"Any damage, misplacement, or difficulty in retrieving public records could lead to a different audit result, which might be attributable to local record storage and retention issues rather than audit deficiencies or audit guidance provided by BOE (Bureau of Elections)," she added.

Office of the Auditor General personnel attended a pilot risk-limiting audit conducted in Holland in May, according to Benson's letter. Personnel also attended a procedural audit conducted by the Ottawa County clerk's office and a procedural audit conducted in Kent County.

Benson's letter is still under review, Nessel's spokeswoman Lynsey Mukomel said Tuesday.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.