There’s a year left until the 2024 presidential election, and Michigan Democratic lawmakers are continuing to move forward on measures they say will improve election integrity throughout the state.
Two bill packages that passed the Michigan House along party lines on Nov. 1 would strengthen penalties for intimidating election workers and restrict the use of artificial intelligence, including so-called deepfakes, or fake digital media altered to seem real, in political campaigns.
Election integrity has been a focal point of Michigan Democrats’ policy agenda this term. Lawmakers have already made sweeping changes to Michigan’s voting system with the implementation of Proposal 2, a ballot initiative to expand voter access, which was approved by 60% of voters in the last election.
Michigan’s top election official, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, gave the legislation passed by the House Wednesday her stamp of approval. She said in a statement she hopes the Senate will take similar action to pass the bills before adjourning for the year, a date that could be sometime in early November.
“I look forward to working with law enforcement and election officials throughout the state to implement them in time for next year’s presidential elections,” Benson said.
House Bill 4129 would criminalize intimidating an election official — including an election inspector, a member of a state or county board of canvassers, or a local clerk — with the intent of interfering with their duties in conducting an election. The bill defines intimidation as harassment that is intended to cause another individual to fear physical injury, and it provides exceptions for reporting, protesting, lobbying or advocacy work.
A growth in election denialism and conspiracy theories following the 2020 presidential election inspired extremists to threaten election officials in Michigan and across the country, driving election workers out of the profession and even prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to create a task force to address the issue.
“We must protect the people who protect democracy,” Benson said regarding the bills. “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.”
Benson herself has not been spared this sort of intimidation. She testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee last year that, weeks after the 2020 election, dozens of protestors came to her home shouting obscenities and threats through bullhorns.
If someone is found to have intimidated an election worker, they could be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days’ imprisonment and/or a $500 fine for the first offense. A second violation would be punishable by up to one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of $1,000. H.B. 4130, a companion bill, would amend the state’s sentencing guidelines to incorporate the third or any subsequent offenses proposed under H.B. 4129 as a felony punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine.
Another area of concern for election officials is the use of artificial intelligence in political advertisements to influence elections, since content created using AI can sometimes be indistinguishable from real media.
House Bills 5141-5145 would create guidelines and penalties for the use of artificial intelligence in campaign advertisements. Several Republicans joined Democrats in voting in favor of the legislation Wednesday.
Under the main bill, H.B. 5141, an individual or campaign committee distributing an advertisement using materials created with AI would have to clearly state within the advertisement that AI was used. H.B. 5143 would define AI in state statute as a “a machine-based system that can, for a given set of human-defined objectives, make predictions, recommendations, or decisions influencing real or virtual environments.”
Charges would range from a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $1,000 for the first offense to a felony punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $2,000. Each deceptive advertisement shared with the public would be considered a separate offense.
If the advertisement is satire, however, it would be exempt from the bill’s restrictions.
Another bill in the package, H.B. 5144, would specifically prohibit the distribution of “materially deceptive media,” or deepfakes, with the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election.
The bill defines materially deceptive media as any image, audio or video that falsely depicts an individual engaging in activities which they did not actually engage in; that an audience would incorrectly believe depicted an individual engaged in such activity; and that is produced by “technical means other than another individual’s ability to physically or verbally impersonate the depicted individual.”
A person would be prohibited from distributing deep fakes pertaining to an election if they knew it falsely represented a depicted individual; if the distribution occurred within 90 days before an election; and the media could harm a candidate’s reputation and influence voters through deceptive means.
The first violation of H.B. 5144 would constitute a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $500. Any subsequent violations committed within five years would be considered a felony punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
House Bills 5142 and 5145 are companion bills that would make related changes to the state sentencing guidelines.
To ensure compliance, Benson said, she’ll continue to work with state and federal partners “to protect voters from foreign or domestic attempts to utilize AI to interfere in our elections.”