Michigan House advances protections for poll workers, restrictions on AI in political ads

Three Rivers voters cast their ballots during the 2020 General Election. (Dave Vago|Watershed Voice)

By Kyle Davidson, Michigan Advance

With the 2024 election looming on the horizon, the Michigan House of Representatives took votes Wednesday on bills addressing threats against election workers and creating restrictions on the use of artificial intelligence in political advertisements.  

According to a survey from the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy group aimed at upholding democratic values, 1 in 3 election officials have faced threats, with more than half of those individuals being threatened in person. 

Additionally, a group of election officials testified before the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee on Wednesday, saying threats and intimidation were driving experienced workers out of the profession.

House Bills 4129 and 4130, introduced by state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt), sets penalties for intimidating or preventing an election official from performing their duties. 

A violation of the law would be a misdemeanor punishable by 93-days imprisonment or a fine of up to $500, or both. A second violation would increase penalties to a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. A third violation would be a felony, punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

The bill defines election officials as a public officer, public employee, election inspector, member of the Board of State Canvassers, member of a board of county canvassers, member of an absent voter counting board, county clerk, or city or township clerk who has a duty to perform in connection with an election conducted under the Michigan Election Law.

It also defines intimidation as “a willful course of conduct involving harassment of another individual that is intended to cause the individual to fear physical injury, that would cause a reasonable individual to fear physical injury, and actually causes the individual to fear physical injury.” It would not include constitutionally protected activity or conduct that serves a legitimate purpose.

Ahead of the vote on the package, Rep. Josh Schriver (R-Oxford), a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, questioned the necessity and enforceability of the bill, saying its definitions were unclear. Schriver also called for poll workers and poll challengers to be given the same protections as election officials. 

However, Hope told the Advance the bill’s language was narrowed from the bill’s initial version, calling concerns that the bills may not comply with the First Amendment “overblown.”

“The language is very specific and narrow. This will enhance safety at polling places and hopefully make it easier for employers to recruit and retain election workers,” Hope said on the House floor on Wednesday. 

The Democratic-led package passed along party lines. 

Members of the House also voted to advance a set of bipartisan bills which would require disclaimers on political ads with audio, images or videos generated using artificial intelligence and create penalties for trying to deceive voters close to an election by using deepfake technology.

Under these regulations, qualified political advertisements pertaining to any candidate, election or ballot question would have to clearly and conspicuously state that they were wholly or partially generated by the use of AI, with different requirements based on the advertisements format. Failing to meet these rules would result in a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days in prison, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

Maximum fines for a second violation would be raised to $1,500. A third and any subsequent offense would be a felony punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, two years in prison or both. Each advertisement aired or distributed would be considered a separate violation.

The bills also place restrictions on individuals outside of a campaign committee who circulate political materials created by AI without including a disclaimer and create exceptions for parody ads and some exceptions for the media.

Rep. Rachelle Smit (R-Martin), another Freedom Caucus member, argued the bills were ripe for abuse and violated the state and federal constitutions. Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing) said disclaimers were already required on fundraising emails, mailer and yard signs.

“If you wish to operate in the sleazy world of faking your political opponents’ words or images, go on and be sleazy, no one is stopping you. Just follow some simple guidelines so voters know what you’re up to,” Tsernoglou said. 

Following the passage of both sets of bills, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, released a statement praising the House for passing the additional protections.

“I’m grateful to the Michigan House for passing bills that will establish critical protections for our elections, election workers, and voters around the state as we head into the 2024 presidential election,” Benson said. 

“The Legislature’s vote to strengthen penalties for those who threaten or harass election workers in particular will put us in a strong position to ensure the safety and security of election officials across our state.

 “I’m also glad to see bills passed today that address the impact of artificial intelligence on our political discourse and election security,” Benson said, adding she would like to see the Senate support these measures before the Legislature adjourns for the year. 

Both sets of bills will move to the Senate Committee on Elections and Ethics for further consideration.

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