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Bill to outlaw lying about election information introduced in the Michigan Senate

In this Nov. 4, 2020, photo, protestors attend a rally calling for every vote to be counted from the general election near the Detroit Department of Elections building in Detroit.
David Goldman
/
AP
In this Nov. 4, 2020, photo, protestors attend a rally calling for every vote to be counted from the general election near the Detroit Department of Elections building in Detroit.

A new bill introduced Tuesday in the Michigan Senate would make intentionally lying about election information illegal.

The measure would cover spreading misinformation about details like the time, place, or manner of an election; voter qualifications and restrictions; potential criminal penalties; and someone’s voter registration status.

The bill seeks to cut back on misinformation meant to discourage someone from voting, that bill sponsor Senator Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford) said is being spread via robocalls and other methods.

Cavanagh said the bill focuses on attempts to circulate misinformation in vulnerable communities.

“It’s mainly targeting seniors and young people with the basic information of elections. Where to get it, how to vote, or if there certain qualifications of coming out of jail or being incarcerated that no longer allow you to vote, it’s just making sure that our laws are transparent, it’s fair and truthful,” Cavanagh said.

But some said they fear the bill could come down too hard on people for relaying information they’re told.

The legislation would set a $1,000 fine for intentionally lying about election information, and a $10,000 fine for employing someone “for an election-related purpose,” that intentionally lies about that information.

“I don’t want to discourage anyone who might be making a mistake,” Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) said shortly after looking at the bill for the first time Tuesday.

Johnson, a former Secretary of State who currently serves as minority vice chair of the Senate Elections and Ethics Committee, said she appreciates the intent of the bill.

Johnson brought up an example of robocallers trying to discourage voters from going to the polls during the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of a voter-suppression effort that needs to be addressed.

But the proposed legislation is "a mixed bag and it goes too far," she said, adding that enforcement of the bill's penalties could be partisan. "If somebody makes a mistake, and says something, such as a volunteer that gets no money, they can get a thousand dollar fine, right?” Johnson said.

Cavanagh said she’s been working with the ACLU on ways to address free speech concerns regarding the bill.

She said she expects to see a new version of the legislation to tighten up the language introduced once the bill gets to the committee process.

“We want to make sure that it was intentional, and it was intentional on the business or anybody hired to make sure that they spread disinformation rather than just their own ideas of what an election might partake,” Cavanagh said.

The issue of spreading false election information has come up recently in other states, as well.

Alleged robocalls in ahead of New Hampshire’s primary election in January attracted a response from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel as part of her role on the nationwide Anti-Robocall Multistate Litigation Task Force.

“What is alleged here in New Hampshire is a surreptitious voter suppression scheme using the widely available AI tools I have worked to warn Michigan residents about encountering, and it must be stopped,” Nessel said in a statement released Tuesday.

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