Oct 4 (Reuters) – A Michigan township official who promotes false conspiracy theories about a rigged 2020 election could face criminal charges related to two voting system security breaches, records and experts say legal issues not previously reported.
A state police detective has recommended Michigan’s attorney general consider unspecified charges during a months-long investigation into a violation related to the Republican clerk’s handling of a vote tabulator, according to a June email from the detective to state and local authorities. Reuters obtained the email via a public record request.
Clerk Stephanie Scott oversaw voting in rural Adams Township until the state last year revoked its authority over the elections. Scott has publicly embraced the baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged against former US President Donald Trump and posted the QAnon conspiracy theory online.
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In a second breach of the township’s voting system, the clerk gave a file containing confidential voter data to an information technology expert who is a suspect in other alleged Michigan election security breaches. The expert, Benjamin Cotton, worked with voter fraud conspirators seeking unauthorized access to other states’ election systems, according to court records reviewed by Reuters. The incident was not previously reported.
Scott denies any wrongdoing. The attorney general and state police declined to comment on the allegations against the clerk.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the battleground state’s top election official, stripped Scott of his authority over the election last year after the clerk refused to perform regular maintenance and testing. precision on the voting material. Scott mistakenly believed the process would erase 2020 election data, which she believed could contain evidence of fraud.
Scott’s actions are part of a nationwide effort by officials and others seeking evidence of Trump’s stolen, false election claims. The allegations against Scott have parallels to the high-profile case of Tina Peters, the Mesa County, Colorado, clerk who enjoys cult hero status in the campaign conspiracy movement and faces felony charges related to similar violations of the electoral system.
Scott’s case illustrates what some election security experts describe as a growing insider threat from officials tasked with safeguarding American democracy. Reuters has documented 18 incidents nationwide, including 12 in Michigan, in which officials and others are accused of violating or attempting to violate election systems. Such breaches can reveal confidential voter information and enable election tampering by revealing security protocols.
“The issue of insider threat is what keeps many people up at night,” said Matthew Weil, executive director of the Democracy Program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank.
If charged, Scott would become the second nationally elected clerk to face criminal charges related to a security breach after the November 2020 election. The Mesa County prosecutor accuses Peters of helping a person not authorized to make copies of the hard drives of his voting machine. She has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts, including seven felonies, and is expected to be tried in March.
Both Peters and Scott insisted they had a duty to investigate the fraud allegations. Peters did not respond to a request for comment.
The vote tabulation violation was exposed in October 2021, shortly after state officials stripped Scott of his authority over township elections. The Secretary of State directed the Clerk to turn over the equipment and records to the Hillsdale County Clerk. County officials soon discovered that a component of the tabulator, known as the digitizer unit tablet, was missing.
The tablet, which officials describe as the brains of the tabulator, contains election data and proprietary software. State police obtained a search warrant to retrieve it, sparking a criminal investigation. Police found it in a locked cabinet in Scott’s office, according to a police report.
On June 24, Michigan State Police Detective Sergeant Jay Barkley emailed county and state officials providing an update on the investigation. “I recently submitted this matter to the Attorney General’s Office for review for possible criminal charges,” Barkley wrote.
Barkley’s email did not specify which charges the attorney general should consider. He noted that prosecutors have requested additional information about Scott’s actions.
Scott’s second election security breach — the disclosure of confidential voter data to an unauthorized technology expert — was exposed in July by Scott’s attorney, Stefanie Lambert. Reuters is reporting it for the first time now.
Lambert, a key figure in the election conspiracy movement, is representing Scott in a lawsuit she filed against state officials, alleging they improperly stripped the clerk of his authority over elections. Lambert, attempting to prove voter fraud in Adams Township, filed an affidavit from Cotton, the tech specialist. Lambert introduced Cotton as an expert witness who had analyzed township voting data and found irregularities.
Cotton said in the affidavit that anonymous Adams Township officials gave him access to the city’s electronic poll book. Scott later admitted at a township board meeting on Aug. 8 that she gave the data to Cotton, according to video of the meeting reviewed by Reuters.
The polls registry shows who voted on November 3, 2020 and contains legally confidential voter data, including driver’s license information and date of birth. State election law prohibits the disclosure of this private voter data to unauthorized persons.
Lisa Brown, the Democratic clerk for Oakland County near Detroit, called sharing electronic ballot data with unauthorized people a “huge no-no”, compromising voter privacy. Those files are password protected, she said, meaning an Adams Township official likely shared the login credentials.
Lambert did not explain why she chose to disclose an unauthorized disclosure of voter data that could result in criminal penalties against her client, or on the allegations against Scott. Cotton did not respond to a request for comment.
Scott told Reuters she believed a state law allowed her to consult outside experts, such as Cotton, to help investigate if she suspected voter fraud. The Michigan Secretary of State’s office declined to comment on this legal theory.
Cotton is the founder of a digital forensics firm that has worked with election conspirators in Maricopa County, Arizona and nationally. He said in a sworn statement in an Arizona lawsuit that he also looked at electoral systems in Coffee County, Georgia — the site of another violation of the electoral system by pro-government activists. Trump — and in the Mesa County, Colorado office run by Peters, the clerk facing felony charges.
Lambert has already been disciplined and faces disbarment for her role in a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Trump’s 2020 election defeat in Michigan. She and Cotton are among nine people being investigated by a Michigan special prosecutor for an alleged conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to voting materials in a case involving alleged statewide violations. .
Scott’s lawsuit was dismissed last week by Michigan Claims Court Judge Douglas Shapiro, who cited the clerk’s failure to properly sign and verify his complaint.
Three election law experts told Reuters that Scott could face criminal penalties for the two election security violations in Adams Township. John Pirich, a retired Michigan attorney who represented Trump in a 2016 election-related lawsuit, said Scott could face misdemeanor or felony charges and was at “great risk” of prosecution criminal cases, “as any court clerk would do if he did that”.
Pirich, who is also a former Michigan assistant attorney general, said state police generally only ask prosecutors to consider charges if investigators believe they have supporting evidence.
“STRONG” EVIDENCE DISASSEMBLED
Michigan has been a central target of the election conspiracy movement, but more than 250 audits have confirmed the former president’s loss here.
Cotton, the computer expert, claimed in his affidavit that he found discrepancies between township polling data and state data suggesting possible fraud. He claimed that dozens of names unique to state data were not recorded in the poll book, and vice versa. In total, the differences raised questions about 11.5% of the 1,362 votes in Adams Township on Election Day, according to the affidavit.
When the affidavit was filed in court, Scott’s attorney, Lambert, was interviewed by Joe Oltmann, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and host of the “Conservative Daily” podcast. She said Cotton found “strong circumstantial evidence” of election rigging.
Marney Kast, the Republican Hillsdale County Clerk, said her office dismissed such claims after conducting its own review of township and state data. Any anomaly Cotton might have found, she said, could reflect the normal, continuous movement of voters in and out of the district — and does not prove fraud.
“I don’t know what documents Mr. Cotton was looking at,” she said. “The total number of voters matched the poll book – 1,362.”
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Reporting by Nathan Layne; edited by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot
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