‘So many red flags’

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Alpena Clerk’s Office Administrative Assistant Kate Straley uses one of the of the large city printers to print off documents while at work on Friday. Like many municipalities in the state, the city is in the process of filling a costly and time-consuming Freedom of Information Act request for copies of the ballots from the 2016 presidential election.

ALPENA –Like many of their peers around Michigan, local clerks in Alpena County are scrambling to fulfill a request made through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act which seeks ballot and voting data from the 2016 presidential election.

It is going to be a long and tedious process to fill the request, as there are thousands of ballots that need to be copied.

United Impact Group LLC requested the information, but little is known about the group. The FOIA request is signed only by an “Emily,” with no last name given.

The state’s FOIA law requires government agencies and other public bodies to hand over documents in their possession unless they fall into certain exempt categories, such as law enforcement investigative records, health records, certain personal identifying information and others. Records that contain only some exempt information can be released with the exempt information redacted.

The Detroit Free Press reported last month that the Michigan Attorney General’s Office has deemed ballots a public record that can be requested.

The law allows governments to charge requesters for the hourly wages and benefits of the employees who fulfill the requests and for certain other expenses, such as paper copies. Agencies can require the requester to pay half the cost before employees begin any work. Some clerks around the state have already received that deposit, the Free Press reported.

Alpena Clerk Treasurer Anna Soik said the city received the request last month and estimates it will take between 55 and 65 hours to fill the request. She said 4,888 ballots were cast during the election, and each one needs to be copied, packaged and mailed to United Impact Group in New York. Soik said the city is going to charge an estimated $2,226.

The request came as the city is already gearing up for the November general election, which adds to the daily work done at the office. The city has demanded that the group deliver a 50-percent deposit before the information is sent.

“This disrupts our office because our office staff will be doing it and they are already busy all day long,” Soik said. “This is something that I know isn’t going to be done in a week. It will be more like a couple months.”

Besides the city, Wilson, Wellington, Green and Alpena townships have also received the FOIA requests for the same information.

Alpena Township Clerk Karie Bleau said her office received the request on Aug. 18 and estimates it will take about 345 hours to prepare the 4,029 regular ballots and 1,246 absentee ballots.

She said any ballots that were deemed void or ineligible must also be included. The township notified United Impact Group that the charge would be $8,872 to fulfill the request and that a 50-percent deposit is needed. Bleau said she isn’t certain, but suspects the group is trying to double-check the state’s final vote totals for President Donald Trump and then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Trump won Michigan by about 10,000 votes.

“I think someone is just trying to stir the pot and I personally believe this will all go away when they see the vast amount of money it will cost them,” she said.

Bleau said the Michigan Bureau of Elections has been in steady contact with clerks and she said making sure everything is ready to go for the November election is the highest priority. She said that, based on the correspondence she has had with other clerks in the state, most — if not all — are granting the FOIA requests.

Soik said the city must provide copies of the returned absentee voter envelopes, with the signatures redacted. She said that, unfortunately, some personal information will need to be shared with United Impact Group.

“They will get the voter’s name and address,” she said. “I’ve researched it extensively and have to give that information out.”

It is unclear if United Impact Group will be able to use the documents it requested to match envelopes to ballots to be able to determine who voters voted for.

In times where there seems to be more claims of voter fraud and election tampering, Soik said she she does have a certain amount of concern that names of voters are going to be turned over to a group or person few know anything about.

“There are so many red flags being raised with this, but there is really nothing that we can do,” she said. “It is all in the law that anyone can request this information if they are willing to pay for it. This request has went out statewide and is basically a recount of the entire state of Michigan. Somebody has a lot of money who is paying for all of this.”

Ballots cast

A look at the number of ballots cast in the 2016 presidential election, including absentee ballots:

City of Alpena: 4,888

Alpena Township: 5,275

Green Township: 632

Maple Ridge Township: 825

Long Rapids Township: 529

Ossineke Township: 885

Sanborn Township: 1,014

Wellington Township: 127

Wilson Township: 1,044

Source: Alpena County

Vote totals

A look at the number of votes for 2016 presidential candidates from Alpena County:

Donald Trump: 9,090

Hillary Clinton: 4,877

Gary Johnson: 498

Jill Stein: 160

Source: Alpena County

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com or 989-358-5689. Follow Steve on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.