By Jon King, Michigan Advance
A new online system for processing requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the Department of Elections was unveiled Tuesday by Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Hailing it as another piece of her effort to increase government transparency, Benson said the system would help bring Michigan forward from its current status.
“For far too long, we have been among the worst states in the nation when it comes to government transparency and ethics laws,” she said. “You’ve all heard many times the Center for Public Integrity has listed Michigan as dead last among the 50 states in transparency and accountability, consistently giving our state a failing grade of F, and we know also the people of Michigan want this change, as do I.”
Calling FOIA “one of the most important tools citizens can use to hold their government accountable,” Benson said the new online portal would make document requests easier and the results more accessible than they’ve ever been. In fact, she said once a FOIA request has been made, many of the responsive documents will be publicly available on the department’s website.
Results that include highly personal information or that involve the qualified voter file will not be published, but she said iit does mean the public will be able to see what documents have already been requested and review them without having to make an additional separate FOIA request.
The service, which has been up and running for several weeks, can be accessed through the state’s MiLogin system, which is already used to connect with State of Michigan services including renewing a driver’s license, filing for unemployment or viewing a state tax return status. Once users provide the required information, they can pay online using their debit or credit card, the first time that will be possible. Previously, FOIA requests required a cashier’s check or money order. But once the online payment is cleared, the requested documents will be made instantly available.
All of the documents will remain online and available to the public for free for one year after publication and will be searchable by keywords, with Benson saying the Department of State is the first state agency to offer an online FOIA system that publishes the results so that they’re open to the public.
“We have already gotten very positive feedback from public users of our system over the last few weeks since it went live,” said Benson. “It’s fast, it’s easy, it eliminates layers of bureaucracy, and the launch of this new tool is also especially timely as we enter 2024 in the presidential election year.”
She said that in 2023, a non-statewide election year, the Bureau of Elections saw a 300% increase in FOIA requests per day over 2021.
“Many of those requests did involve a qualified voter file, thousands of pages that could not be physically printed, but had to be uploaded to a thumb drive and mailed to the requester,” Benson said.
With the expectation that the number of records requests will dramatically increase in 2024, coupled with a large increase in multiple parties requesting the same document, Benson says the new system will manage the requests efficiently and effectively in a way that also alleviates the burden on her staff as well as the economic impact manually fulfilling those requests entails.
But beyond the improvements in efficiency, government transparency advocates also see the new system as a key step forward.
Nick Pigeon, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), said the online portal would simultaneously benefit both the general public, but also the work that his organization engages in.
“MCFN has used FOIA many times to conduct its investigations into conflicts of interest, revealing communication between public officials and private companies that they would later end up representing,” he said. “The ease of which our legislators can move from regulating a business to working on behalf of that business is a huge problem, and FOIA is an important accountability mechanism, shining a light on the affairs of public officials who serve, knowing that any public record can be uncomfortable. MCFN believes that a public body that is subject to disclosure and is transparent in its deliberations and internal communications, better serves the people of the state of Michigan.”
Along those same lines, Kim Murphy-Kovalick with the good government group Voters Not Politicians, said the system was a good first step, but should not be the last, toward providing transparency across all levels of government.
“The people of Michigan have the right to know who’s influencing policy outcomes, how policy is made, and the way the state’s resources are allocated,” she said. “This common sense tool will help alleviate some of the FOIA request pinches that we have seen. I want to thank Secretary Benson and the Department of State for creating this tool and for facilitating transparency and anti-corruption in Michigan.”
Benson also addressed the issue of extending FOIA to the legislative and executive branches, work that was left unfinished by the Legislature in 2023.
“We are in ongoing conversations, and continue to be, with lawmakers about the additional changes we would like to see made and put into law,” she said. “Obviously, expanding FOIA to cover the governor’s office and the legislature is top of that list.”
A bipartisan set of bills that would do just that were introduced in the final days of this year’s legislative session.
The bills’ sponsors, Sens. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), have worked together on bills to improve government transparency since their time serving in the House. Although FOIA reform has passed the House in recent sessions, it has never made it through the Senate, with some Republicans criticizing Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in about four decades, for slow-walking reforms. Benson said she’s hopeful that 2024 will produce the desired outcome.
“I testified to the House and Senate Ethics Committees, as well calling for these changes,” she said. “And we have worked with a number of lawmakers in both the Senate and the House side to craft and propose legislation. So we hope to see this is made a priority in the New Year.
“I think as we saw from the flurry of legislation that was enacted and is now being signed into law, there is a lot on the plate of our lawmakers, and I understand that, as well,” she said. “Every piece of legislation that’s enacted comes with its own sort of arguments for urgency. I believe we now need to turn to these issues and make them just as urgent. And my hope is that the Legislature does, as well.”
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