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As Transparent As Mud



by Elizabeth Dallam-Ayoub | October 10, 2023


In November 2021 Michigan’s governor supposedly brought transparency to Michigan’s government: “In order for Michiganders to have full faith in our state government, is critical that state departments and agencies are transparent,” Governor Gretchen Whitmer said. “Trust is critical for our democracy to be successful, and House Bill 4778 is another step in ensuring that our state is working for the best interests of Michigan communities.” Governor Whitmer Signs Legislation Strengthening Government Transparency (michigan.gov)


The bill became law, and MCL § 18.1270, sec. 270 of the Management and Budget Act, states, “The department shall issue directives that all state departments and all state agencies must not use any app, software, or other technology that prevents it from maintaining or preserving a public record as required by law on an electronic device that is used to create a public record.”


The law gives the appearance of addressing transparency, but its implementation is opaque. Public records created and used for Michigan elections are far from transparent.

First and foremost, it appears as if the state is doing an incredibly poor job of preserving the public records of Michigan voters, which are kept electronically. Hundreds of people remain on the voter rolls who are no longer living, thousands of people no longer live where the state-maintained records say they live. Clean Voter Rolls Critical to Local Elections (mifairelections.org)


When questioned about these corrupted voter rolls, the Secretary of State and clerks mention different qualified voter files (QVFs). The QVF is the states’ official database of registered voters. How can there be more than one QVF? What’s this Fuss about the QVF? (mifairelections.org)


On the one hand, while the state professes to preserve electronic records on the auspices of transparency, its other hand appears to be obstructing access to public records. Patrick Colbeck of the Michigan GrassRoots Alliance has issued over 100 Freedom of Information Act requests. The former state senator has asked for information given to non-governmental organizations about election records and chain-of-custody, and he has requested information that emanates from software.


“If you [the state] want us to believe in the results of any election, you [the state] have to be transparent about the results,” Colbeck, a former rocket scientist whose technological inventions are on the International Space Station, said. “Public officials increasingly outsource more and more sensitive election processes to non-government organizations (NGO’s).” He cited Rock the Vote, SCYTL, the Center for Internet Security, and voting system manufacturers like Dominion, ES&S and Hart.


But NGO’s operate behind a veil of secrecy, he said. “They are not subject to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests. If we are to trust the results of our elections, we need more transparency not less.”


Under the Michigan statute, signed into law and hailed by Governor Whitmer as adding transparency to Michigan’s government, these records were preserved in the name of government transparency, yet they are inaccessible to Michigan taxpayers?


Not only was Colbeck unable to receive information that has been preserved from electronic equipment according to Michigan law. But he was also unable to receive other public, non-electronic state records.


As to transparency during this governorship, Colbeck added: “I have been waiting since March, and a colleague of mine has been waiting since January to receive public records regarding communications between the University of Michigan and 501(c)(3) organizations.”

As with others, Colbeck is working to ensure that there are checks and balances in Michigan’s elections. “Anyone who opposes checks and balances on our elections might as well try to argue that football games should have no referees,” Phani Mantravadi, an information technology engineer and co-founder of Checkmyvote.org (CMV) stated.


Fortunately, 200 years ago people lifted the heavy hand of a dictatorial government and replaced it with a constitutional republic, a revolutionary experiment in governance of and by We the People. Today, citizens are working to preserve that form of self-governance—possible only through true transparency.


MFE’s Soles to the Rolls, in concert with Tim Vetter and Phani Mantravadi’s Check My Vote, have implemented a project that gives citizens information to check Michigan’s voter rolls to find errors and inconsistencies. Anyone can become involved in Soles to the Rolls to the rescue: How digital canvassing is paving the way to clean voter rolls (mifairelections.org)


Maybe Governor Whitmer had a slip of the tongue in 2021 when she said the new law made information more transparent, or maybe her use of the word, transparency, took on a new meaning as seems to be the case with so many words these days. Perhaps she really meant to say, opaque.


As Michigan taxpayers, perhaps we can apply her definition.


The State of Michigan requires each taxpayer to complete a tax form each year. That information must be transparent, not shrouded or slow-walked. Next spring as rains make Michigan the muddy mess it often is when Michigan income tax forms come due, perhaps taxpayers can coat those forms in mud and mail them in. Transparent? Opaque?

About 250 years ago concerned citizens threw tea into the harbor. Perhaps in 2024 concerned citizens will sling mud on their income tax forms to make a similar statement.

Elizabeth Dallam Ayoub serves as MFE’s director of communications. She started her career working for an international company, transitioned into teaching French and Latin while her children were young, and then became a Michigan attorney. She resides in St. Johns.


 

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