By Nathan Layne
MARKEY TOWNSHIP, Michigan (Reuters) - The top election official in this small Michigan town said she received an unusual call in March last year. A Republican state lawmaker who backed former President Donald Trump's lie of a stolen 2020 election wanted access to voting machines.
Daire Rendon, a vocal promoter of Trump's baseless claims of widespread fraud in the November election, said in that call she wanted to conduct an audit and needed access to the vote tabulator the town uses to process ballots, the clerk, Sheryl Tussey, told Reuters.
Tussey denied the request, the latest example of a multi-state effort by supporters of Trump to gain unauthorized access to voting systems while promoting conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines. An April 28 Reuters investigation highlighted eight such breaches or attempted breaches in five U.S. states.
Since then, several more have come to light, including the effort in Markey, a lakeside town of about 2,300 people in conservative and thinly populated Roscommon County, which overwhelmingly backed Trump in 2020.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and the Michigan State Police have been investigating incidents of unauthorized access in multiple counties in this crucial swing state, which voted for Trump in 2016 and Democratic President Joe Biden in 2020.
Behind several breaches and attempts to access vote tabulators lies the false belief that state-ordered voting-system upgrades or maintenance would erase evidence of alleged fraud in the 2020 election. State election officials say those processes have no impact on the voting systems' ability to save data from past elections.
Tussey said Rendon contacted her on March 20, 2021. "I didn't think long. I was just not comfortable. I didn't think it was right," Tussey told Reuters.
Two other clerks in Roscommon County told Reuters they were approached in a similar way. One said she was contacted by Rendon, who last year was photographed wearing a button featuring the letter "Q," a symbol for a right-wing QAnon conspiracy theory movement. One of the clerks would not confirm or deny if it was Rendon who approached her.
Rendon, whose constituency includes Roscommon County, did not respond to a request for comment. After Trump's 2020 loss, Rendon publicly embraced the "Big Lie" that widespread election fraud robbed Trump of victory.
Carol Asher, clerk of Roscommon County's Denton Township, said she found it strange that Rendon contacted her on a Saturday on her cell phone instead of during business hours at work. Asher said Rendon was adamant that access had to be granted that weekend because others working with Rendon were in town.
"If this was legitimate, you come in here with a paper written from the Secretary of State or something," said Asher, who like Tussey is a Republican. "I thought it was kind of strange, but I said 'no, we could never allow it'."
Rendon's outreach to Asher was first reported by the Detroit News.
Asher showed Reuters a copy of a statement, dated March 10, 2022, that she provided to Nessel's office. The document detailed Rendon's request in the weeks after the 2020 election to "go to the Township Hall and allow her access to the voting tabulators." Asher denied the request, the statement says.
Nessel and the state police launched their probe at the request of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who in February disclosed that an unauthorized party had "allegedly gained inappropriate access to tabulation machines and data drives used in Richfield Township and Roscommon County" without providing details.
Richfield Township officials declined to comment.
On June 26, 2021, Rendon issued a statement claiming she was in possession of "evidence reflecting systematic election fraud in Michigan that occurred in the November 2020 election." She has not disclosed that evidence.
Rendon's statement came three days after a Republican-controlled Michigan state Senate committee released a long-awaited report confirming there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. After Biden won, Trump put pressure on Republican legislators to intervene on his behalf to overturn his loss, and his campaign's lawyers filed unsuccessful litigation in several states seeking to prove voter fraud.
Carie Milburn, the clerk in Roscommon Township, said she was also approached by someone asking to access her two voting tabulators. She did not name the individual, citing the ongoing investigation, but said she wondered why the person wanted to access her equipment, made by Election Systems & Software LLC.
She noted that all the baseless conspiracy theories swirling at the time were focused on machines made by a different company, Dominion Voting Systems. Both companies noted that claims of voter fraud involving their machines have been repeatedly debunked.
"I remember saying well we have ES&S, we don't have Dominion, so I'm not even sure why you would want access to anything of ours," Milburn said, recalling that the person's response was because they wanted to compare the two machines.
Milburn said she was approached on March 20, 2021, the same date that Tussey was contacted by Rendon.
(Additional reporting by Peter Eisler. Editing by Jason Szep and David Gregorio)