Oct 4 (Reuters) – A Michigan township official who promotes false conspiracy theories of a rigged 2020 election could face criminal charges related to two voting-system security breaches, according to previously unreported records and legal experts.
A state police detective recommended that the Michigan attorney general consider unspecified charges amid a months-long probe into one breach related to the Republican clerk’s handling of a vote tabulator, according to a June email from the detective to state and local officials. Reuters obtained the email through a public-records request.
The clerk, Stephanie Scott, oversaw voting in rural Adams Township until the state last year revoked her authority over elections. Scott has publicly embraced baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged against former U.S. President Donald Trump and has posted online about the QAnon conspiracy theory.
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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 violations. The expert, Benjamin Cotton, worked with voter-fraud conspiracists seeking unauthorized access to election systems in other states, according to court records reviewed by Reuters. The incident has not been 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 top election official in this battleground state, stripped Scott of her authority over elections last year after the clerk refused to perform regular maintenance and accuracy testing on voting equipment. Scott believed, incorrectly, that the process would erase 2020 election data, which she believed might contain fraud evidence.
Scott’s actions are part of a national effort by public officials and others seeking evidence of Trump’s false stolen-election claims. The allegations against Scott have parallels to the high-profile case of Tina Peters, the clerk in Mesa County, Colorado, who enjoys cult-hero status in the election-conspiracy movement and faces felony charges related to similar voting-system breaches.
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 nationally, 12 of them in Michigan, in which public officials and others are accused of breaching or attempting to breach election systems. Such violations can expose confidential voter information and enable election-tampering by revealing security protocols.
“The insider threat question 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 elected clerk nationally to face criminal prosecution related to a security breach following the November 2020 election. The Mesa County district attorney accuses Peters of helping an unauthorized person make copies of her voting machine hard drives. She has pleaded not guilty to 10 criminal counts, including seven felonies, and is set to go to trial in March.
Both Peters and Scott have insisted they had a duty to investigate fraud allegations. Peters did not respond to a request for comment.
The vote-tabulator breach came to light in October 2021, shortly after state officials stripped Scott of her authority over township elections. The secretary of state ordered the clerk to turn over equipment and records to the Hillsdale county clerk. County officials soon discovered a component of the tabulator, known as the scan unit tablet, was missing.
The tablet, which officials describe as the brains of the tabulator, contains election data and proprietary vendor software. State police obtained a search warrant to retrieve it, kicking off 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 to provide an update on the investigation. “I have recently submitted this case to the Attorney General’s Office for review for possible criminal charges,” Barkley wrote.
Barkley’s email didn’t specify what charges the attorney general should consider. It noted that prosecutors requested additional information about Scott’s actions.
Scott’s second election-security breach – the release of confidential voter data to an unauthorized technology expert – was disclosed in July by Scott’s own lawyer, Stefanie Lambert. Reuters is reporting it for the first time now.
Lambert, a key figure in the election-conspiracy movement, represents Scott in a lawsuit she filed against state officials, alleging they improperly stripped the clerk of her authority over elections. Lambert, attempting to prove voter fraud in Adams Township, filed an affidavit from Cotton, the technology specialist. Lambert presented Cotton as an expert witness who had analyzed the township’s voting data and found irregularities.
Cotton said in the sworn statement that unnamed Adams Township officials gave him access to the town’s electronic pollbook. Scott later admitted at an Aug. 8 township board meeting that she had given Cotton the data, according to video of the meeting reviewed by Reuters.
The pollbook shows who voted on Nov. 3, 2020, and contains legally confidential voter data including driver license and birth date information. State election law prohibits the disclosure of such private voter data to unauthorized people.
Lisa Brown, the Democratic clerk of Oakland County, near Detroit, called sharing the electronic pollbook data with unauthorized people a “huge no-no,” compromising voter privacy. Such files are password-protected, she said, meaning an Adams Township official likely shared login credentials.
Lambert did not comment on why she chose to disclose an unauthorized release 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 believes that a state law allowed her to consult outside experts, such as Cotton, to help her investigate if she suspected election fraud. The Michigan secretary of state’s office declined to comment on that legal theory.
Cotton is the founder of a digital forensics firm who has worked with election conspiracists in Maricopa County, Arizona and nationally. He said in a sworn statement in an Arizona lawsuit that he had also examined election systems in Coffee County, Georgia – the site of another voting-system breach by pro-Trump activists – and in the Mesa County, Colorado office run by Peters, the clerk facing felony charges.
Lambert was previously sanctioned, and faces possible disbarment, for her role in a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss in Michigan. She and Cotton are among nine people under investigation by a special prosecutor in Michigan for an alleged conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to voting equipment in a case that involves alleged breaches across the state.
After this story was published, Lambert disputed its characterization of her as a key figure in the election-conspiracy movement.
Scott’s lawsuit was dismissed last week by Michigan Court of Claims Judge Douglas Shapiro, who cited the clerk’s failure to properly sign and verify her complaint.
Three election law experts told Reuters that Scott could face criminal penalties over the two election-security violations in Adams Township. John Pirich, a retired Michigan attorney who represented Trump in an election-related 2016 lawsuit, said Scott could face misdemeanor or felony charges and was “at great risk” of criminal prosecution, “as would any clerk if they did this.”
Pirich, who is also a former Michigan assistant attorney general, said state police would typically only ask prosecutors to consider charges if investigators believed they had evidence to support them.
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Cotton, the IT expert, claimed in his affidavit to have found deviations between the township’s pollbook data and state data that suggested possible fraud. He asserted that dozens of names unique to the state’s data were not recorded in the pollbook, and vice versa. All told, the differences raised questions about 11.5% of the 1,362 votes in Adams Township on Election Day, the affidavit claims.
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 had found “strong circumstantial evidence” of election-rigging.
Marney Kast, the Republican clerk in Hillsdale County said her office rejected such assertions after conducting its own examination of township and state data. Any discrepancies Cotton might have found, she said, could reflect the normal ongoing movement of voters in and out of the district – and do not prove fraud.
“I am not sure what records Mr. Cotton was looking at,” she said. “The total number of voters matched the pollbook – 1,362.”
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Reporting by Nathan Layne; editing by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot
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