House OKs bills seeking to shore up access to electronic voter info

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan House on Tuesday approved a trio of bills seeking to shore up access to electronic voter information and extend the retention periods for election documents. 

The bills are among dozens of pieces of Republican-sponsored legislation that have stirred controversy as opponents, especially Democrats, argue they falsely imply there were shortcomings in the security of the 2020 presidential election.

Republicans pushed back on the criticisms and argued they did not impose any extra burdens on Michigan voters. 

"We are not creating new burdens for the people of our communities who administer our elections," Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, said of one of the bills. "Our local clerks and our cities and townships, they’re already following these protocols.”

Absentee ballots are counted at the Madison Heights City Center in Madison Heights, Mich. on Nov. 3, 2020. New legislation would extend the time that local election officials need to retain election records.

The bills passed with the support of several Democrats. Still the majority of the minority caucus opposed the legislation.

"We're here today wasting our time making laws about elections that make no real changes. They just feed a lie," said House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township. 

"It feeds into the narrative of the big lie, that our election was somehow stolen," said Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth. 

The Michigan Department of State was neutral on each of the bills when they passed through committee. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Tuesday that she's been focused on "implementing nationally-recognized best practices" to ensure the integrity of elections, and hundreds of audits and court rulings have affirmed the accuracy of the November election.

“The 2020 election was the safest and most secure in Michigan history, and we appreciate the Legislature recognizing this by codifying three practices we were already utilizing that contributed to its success," Benson, a Democrat, said in a statement.

One bill introduced by Rep. Sarah Lightner, R-Springport, would change state election law to limit access to the qualified voter file to the Secretary of State's office and credentialed election officials; county, city and township clerks; and those tasked with maintaining or securing the file. 

It would remove "designated voter registration agency" from the list of individuals able to access the file. The bill passed 75-33. 

Another bill introduced by Rep. Phil Green, R-Millington, would prohibit the electronic poll book at precincts or absent voter counting boards from being connected to the internet until all results have been tabulated. The practice already is in place in precincts throughout the state, prompting some opponents to allege the new law would only serve to confuse.

The bill passed 77-31.

The legislation is advancing to the Senate as some observers at absentee counting operations at the TCF Center in Detroit during the November election alleged the tabulators were connected to the internet.

Election experts and a Senate report maintained there was no evidence that tabulators were connected to the internet. The report noted that tabulators were connected to a local area network, which generates the same icon on a computer screen as a connection to the internet. 

Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, said hours of Oversight Committee hearings emphasized the need for the Legislation despite the practice's current prevalence. 

"The issue this legislation addresses was a concern that continued to come up and in order to restore faith in our elections process and ensure security in our elections we should remove any doubt that an internet connection could be used for nefarious purposes," Hall said. 

But Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, criticized the legislation as an unnecessary statute that appears to give credence to unproven allegations about the 2020 election.

State Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, criticized some election reform bills as attempting to cast a pall over legitimate results from Michigan's November 2020 election.

"Why are we at this point trying to place doubt in the minds of our citizens?” Johnson said. 

A third bill introduced by Rep. Ken Borton, R-Gaylord, changes election law to extend retention requirements for ballots from 30 days to 22 months for ballots used in a state or federal primary or election. The retention of election returns -- such as tally sheets, absent voter records or poll lists -- would be reduced from two years to 22 months. 

The bill also would allow electronic poll book flash drives to be destroyed 30 days after certification of an election unless there is a petition of a recount or court-issued restraining order. 

The bill passed 80-28.