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This week’s indictments of three Michigan allies of former President Donald Trump on claims of illegally seizing voting machines demonstrate that the rules and laws governing the security of Michigan’s election systems worked, say experts and local clerks, and it sends a message that voting systems must be kept closely protected.
Matthew DePerno, a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general last year, and former state Rep. Daire Rendon, both Republicans, were indicted and arraigned Tuesday in Oakland County Circuit Court. Lawyer Stefanie Lambert Junttila was arraigned Thursday. All were charged in connection with an alleged plot to gain possession of voting machines used in the 2020 election and examine them in a failed attempt to prove the machines were rigged to deliver a fraudulent victory for President Joe Biden.
In an investigation last year, state authorities said DePerno, Rendon, and Lambert Junttila “orchestrated” the effort to examine ballot tabulators from locations in three northern Michigan counties beginning around January 2021. DePerno and others then allegedly took five tabulators to hotels and rental homes in Oakland County, broke into the machines, and ran tests on them.
Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson, the special prosecutor in the case, announced Thursday he would not charge anyone else. At one point the year-long investigation had identified at least nine people involved in the effort, including a county sheriff and a group of technology contractors. Some of those participants, Hilson wrote, had been “deceived” into believing their actions were lawful.
Michigan State University law professor John Pirich, who has been following the case, said the indictments are an indication that state laws governing the security around Michigan’s elections system worked and could become a deterrent to others considering attempts to gain access to voting machines.
Pirich says Michigan laws clearly state that voting machines are not subject to public review or public handling and are under the Michigan secretary of state’s jurisdiction. The secretary of state’s election rules, backed by Michigan law, restrict access to the clerk, deputy clerk, elections staff, and employees from the companies that manufacture and service the machines.
Last month, Hilson sought clarification on Michigan law about voting machine possession from Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Phyllis McMillen, who confirmed that only those people authorized by the secretary of state are allowed to access voting machines, or those operating under a court order such as a search warrant.
“I hope it does send out a warning to those who think they can basically become sheriffs on their own, in the sense that they think they can go out, grab information from machines, take them apart … modify them,” said Pirich, adding that the point of the statutory protections is “to preserve and protect the integrity of the election process, the electoral process.”
Even though only three of the nine suspects in the tabulator breach were indicted, Pirich says it’s still “the shot across the bow,” warning potential wrongdoers that there are consequences to illegal interference in elections.
“I hope a conviction will be more of a deterrent,” Pirich said Thursday.
Juan Gilbert, a University of Florida computer sciences professor and an election systems expert, also said the indictment may thwart future attempts by election conspiracy theorists and others seeking to unsuccessfully try and prove that a voting machine is faulty to justify election skepticism.
“Those laws are on the books for a reason,” said Gilbert.
Gilbert said that since the 2020 election, skeptics have been searching for ways to disqualify election results and are looking to voting machines in an attempt to prove their allegations.
“Just because a machine has a vulnerability, you can’t prove it’s been exploited,” said Gilbert. “There are people making claims, but you have to look at the motivation behind the claims.”
Local clerks including Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown and Canton Township Clerk Michael Siegrist echoed the experts, saying they hope the indictments serve as warnings to others seeking to tamper with voting machines and they’re glad authorities took the matter seriously.
“I hope people know that they’ll be held accountable for their actions, especially when it comes to committing a fraud to the electorate of Michigan or trying to perpetuate a lie and having access to voting equipment,” said Brown. “I hope it will put an end to all the nonsense of 2020.”
Siegrist said he is “grateful” to state authorities taking action to protect the state’s election system by bringing criminal charges in the tabulator breach but wished “they went further” than the three defendants.
“It should send a clear message to election officials and partisan actors that the system is supposed to be above reproach,” said Siegrist. “I hope this will deter that in the future. Other clerks said no, and other people asked for equipment and tried to get their hands on equipment.”
He said that prior to the 2020 election, “norms and common decency dictated how people behaved” in election matters. Since then, he notes, state authorities have had to step in to make sure local officials keep the election system secure.
For example, after the state Bureau of Elections learned of the tabulator breaches in 2021, Director Jonathan Brater sent clerks a detailed memo about public requests regarding election records and voting equipment, advising them about who could have access to tabulators and who couldn’t.
In August 2022, Brater also sent individual memos to clerks in the places that experienced tabulator breaches advising them of their obligations to “safeguard the security of election equipment.”
Siegrist added: “Going forward, ignorance is no longer an excuse for clerks. My hope is that anyone approached to break the law will think twice as a result of the indictments.”
The clerks who allegedly allowed access to their election equipment, according to the Attorney General’s Office, were Irving Township Clerk Sharon Olson, Lake City Township Clerk Korinda Winkelmann, and Roscommon Clerk Michelle Stevenson. Another official, Richfield Township Supervisor Walter John Bawol, handed over two of his township’s tabulators to someone in DePerno’s group, according to the attorney general’s investigation.
When reached by email, Stevenson declined to comment on the case. Attempts to reach Olson, Stevenson and Winkelmann were unsuccessful.
Hilson said in his statement Thursday the county and municipal clerks who turned over their tabulators were “deceived” by some of the defendants who were charged.
“The clerks had no idea of the scope, nature or duration of how their tabulators were going to be manipulated or that they would be out of their possession for an extended period of time,” Hilson wrote.
Other Michigan clerks have reported rebuffing efforts to access their election equipment. Livonia Clerk Susan Nash told the Detroit News a legislator pressured her to hand over her city’s voting machines. And in December 2020 then-Rochester Hills clerk Tina Barton received a voicemail from a man who identified himself as Mark Foster seeking assistance in accessing Dominion Voting Systems machines.
DePerno and Lambert Junttila were both charged with the same four felony counts: undue possession of a voting machine, engaging in a conspiracy to do so, willfully damaging a voting machine, and conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to a computer system. Rendon was also charged with undue possession of voting equipment, as well as making false statements.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Tuesday in a statement that the allegations are “incredibly serious and unprecedented.”
This week’s indictments were handed up by a citizens grand jury which, according to Pirich, is composed of 12-17 citizens chosen from a list of registered voters.
“We thank the grand jury for their careful deliberation and for fulfilling their sworn commitment to make a decision that was not influenced by politics, bias or prejudice,” Hilson said in a statement.
DePerno’s attorney, Paul Stablein, said the charges were “improperly levied” against his client.
“He categorically denies any wrongdoing and firmly asserts that these charges are unfounded and lack merit,” Stablein said Tuesday in a statement. A lawyer for Lambert Junttila did not respond to a request for comment, and no attorney was listed as representing Rendon, who also did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the Michigan attorney general’s petition for the appointment of a special prosecutor a year ago, DePerno and the others “orchestrated a coordinated plan” to gain access to voting tabulators.
The six other suspects identified in the state’s investigation were Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, Michigan attorney Ann Howard, and a cadre of contractors made up of Douglas Logan, Ben Cotton, Jeff Lenberg, and James Penrose.
The Michigan investigation alleged that Logan, Cotton, Lenberg, and Penrose were the suspects who broke into the tabulators, according to the Attorney General’s Office, and that DePerno was present at a hotel room during their testing. Howard was accused of printing fake ballots to be put through the tabulators.
Hilson said the decision not to charge them was based on “careful consideration of the totality of the evidence.” He specifically noted that the “computer experts” who were asked to analyze tabulators were also deceived into believing their work was lawful.
Those contractors, nationally prominent Trump allies who dispute the results of the 2020 election, have represented themselves as technology experts in auditing election results and investigating election systems.
Logan was CEO of the now-defunct Cyber Ninjas, a Sarasota, Fla.-based company hired in 2021 by Arizona Senate Republicans to conduct a partisan review and ballot recount of Maricopa County’s 2020 election. Cotton is the founder of the digital forensics firm CyFIR and worked as a subcontractor for Logan on the Maricopa review, according to published reports.
Logan and Lenberg are also the subjects of an investigation in Georgia, where officials are examining their role in a January 2021 breach into the election system in Coffee County.
In concluding his prosecution, Hilson said, “Protecting the election process is of the utmost importance in our state and country. This investigation and prosecution is an important step in that direction.”
Oralandar Brand-Williams is a senior reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Bridge Michigan. Contact Oralandar at firstname.lastname@example.org.