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Local clerks responding to ‘Emily’ FOIA request

Sydney Smith/The Holland Sentinel • Sep 8, 2018 at 10:30 AM

A recent Freedom of Information Act request sent to municipalities across Michigan could mean a huge workload for clerks ahead of the midterm election.

“It’s a very bizarre FOIA just because obviously it took a long time for the entity behind it to become known at all,” Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck said. “There’s very little information on to whom we communicate with.”

In August, Michigan clerks offices received a perplexing FOIA request from “Emily,” asking for copies of ballots and materials from the 2016 general election. The Detroit News later reported that Priorities USA Foundation, a non-partisan super PAC, claimed it contracted a third party to send hundreds of records requests to clerks throughout Michigan.

This includes several in Ottawa County — Roebuck’s office is working with local clerks on responses to the extensive request.

A FOIA request is a formal request for documents from a public body; anyone can request them, though it costs money to process them based on how much staff time needs to be dedicated to fulfill the request and to make copies or cover basic supplies to fulfill it.

In some cases, these requests would cost thousands of dollars to complete. Cost varies between municipalities, though Roebuck said that in Park Township it would cost the requestor roughly $10,000 to have the request fulfilled. In Georgetown Township, it’s roughly $36,000, he said.

Holland Township came in around $14,000, said the township’s clerk, Michael Dalman. After sending that estimate, “Emily” asked the township to revise its estimate to only include some of its precincts.

“Can you imagine copying all of those ballots? Fifteen-thousand ballots not on standard-sized paper,” Dalman said. “It would be a challenge. But, if we had to, we could do it.”

Interestingly, in the city of Holland, the requestor only asked for information from one precinct — Ward 5, precinct 12, which is part of the city but in Allegan County. City Clerk Kathy Mitchell said requestors don’t need to provide information on why they’re requesting documents.

Mitchell said the city asked for 50 percent of the cost needed to fulfill the request — for Holland, that’s about $1,000 — and is awaiting a response from “Emily.”

“We’re in kind of a wait-and-see,” Mitchell said.

Roebuck has advised the municipalities to ask for the 50 percent deposit before beginning to process the request. This is because it’s going to take a large amount of work — only clerks and their deputies can handle ballots, and there’s not a copier in Roebuck’s office, for example, and there is not a copier for the 17-inch, double-sided ballots.

“Also, redaction is involved in a couple of the items requested — voter telephone numbers and ballot numbers all have to be redacted — so it’s a really comprehensive, massive request,” Roebuck said.

Allegan County is going through a similar process, said County Clerk Bob Genetski.

“It comes at one of the busiest times,” he said. “While nobody minds complying with the law, this group appears to still be hashing out who won the presidential election in 2016.”

Clerks are concerned about identity issues based on some of Emily’s requests, including photo copies of envelopes absentee ballots arrived in, which include voters’ home addresses, and the signature box where voters signed, Genetski said, praising the “professionalism” of the local clerks in Allegan County.

“They are just dong their best to prep for the November election and both comply with the FOIA request, and to protect voters from any sort of potential identity theft, which they shouldn’t be subject to,” he said.

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