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Records requests are good, but the torrent flowing into election offices is doing real harm

Votebeat investigation finds election offices overwhelmed by records requests seeking to prove nonexistent fraud 

(Eric Wilson for Votebeat)

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S. A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s free weekly newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox every Saturday.

Hi, y’all,

Our investigation into the torrent of public records requests that elections offices across the country are fielding from activists searching for a way to boost baseless narratives of a stolen election shows they are doing real harm.

Like so much in county government (and especially elections), the work to fulfill a public records request is invisible. We journalists also love a good public records request! This project about how overwhelmed these offices are by public records requests, ironically, relied on records requests to answer our initial questions. It wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. 

So we understand the temptation of sending in a request— even a massive one, or one for data you aren’t even sure the county actually has. But every Votebeat reporter and editor has been trained to target requests more carefully than that. 

Nonetheless, counties across the country are drowning in requests from conspiracy theorists searching endlessly for that ever-elusive proof of fraud, which can overwhelm an elections office to the point where other, vital responsibilities are given short shrift.

We have another piece of our investigation coming next week, but know there are a lot of converging problems here, and no single solution. 

Counties are using deeply outdated information management systems and often have no public records tracking system. The offices are understaffed, and serially underpay workers responsible for responding to increasingly hostile requests. The flood of bad-faith and nonsensical requests have made all of this worse, resulting in what many election officials have characterized to me as an in-person denial of service attack for their offices. Then, when an office responds, the activists seeking to push theories of fraud sometimes mischaracterize the records, forcing local election officials to work even harder to respond.

Of course, reporting on records requests has the potential to be just as tedious as filling them. We also had to figure out how to manage our investigation on top of our normal commitment to covering voting news every day. It started with three part time freelancers, sending our own records requests to every county in Arizona — we knew, based on our own reporting, things were particularly acute there — and major counties beyond. Then, these freelancers, Jen Fifield, and I combed through the records, identifying particularly aggressive requesters and interviewing local administrators to better understand the impact of the requests. Jen took all of this information and shaped it into two stories we felt were representative of what we’d learned. 

From start to finish, the effort took almost a year. 

A project this wide-ranging takes up a lot of resources in a small newsroom and costs a lot of money. Still, we knew — because we talk to election administrators every single day — that we uniquely understood this really was shutting down whole offices. We also knew we were the only newsroom likely to comb through Freedom of Information logs and payment stubs to trace records requests back to a small group of activists operating in Arizona. Now that Jen Fifield has molded all of that work into fascinating stories, I know the effort was worth it. 

And we aren’t done. 

We know that these stories only scratch the surface of the problem, and we are eager to keep shedding light on this. 

So, talk to us! 

Is there a local activist group overwhelming your office with bad faith records requests? Has your county implemented a public records tracking program that has expedited its ability to process requests you wish others knew about? Reach out to me or Jen and let us know. 

Back Then

Before there was Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, there was New Ashford, Massachusetts. For years, that town held the distinction of being the first place in the nation to report its election results. With few residents, the town could open polls before 6 a.m., count the fewer than 40 ballots, and report results to the newswire before 8 a.m. The town’s dedication to this practice led to Phoebe Jordan being the first woman in the country to have her ballot counted in a presidential election on Nov. 2, 1920. She was one of 12 women to vote in New Ashford that day. Here is a picture of her! 

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In Other Voting News

  • Cochise County’s elections director, Bob Bartelsmeyer, has resigned, AZPM reported, becoming the second elections director to step down there within the last year. County officials appointed Bartelsmeyer even though he had spread false posts claiming election fraud, and the county has been a laboratory for election skeptics since the 2020 election. 
  • Alabama is the latest Republican-led state to announce it is launching a replacement for ERIC after withdrawing from the multistate voter compact. Secretary of State Wes Allen said the new system will compare Alabama’s voter list to the National Change of Address file, and is also completing agreements to compare its voter rolls with the states of Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Several Republican-led states have withdrawn from ERIC, a bipartisan interstate compact, in the wake of conspiracy theories about the organization. 
  • Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against conservative network Newsmax will go to trial in September 2024, shortly before the 2024 election, CNN reported
  • In an attempt to reassure the public about the security of voting machines, large voting machine manufacturers recruited cybersecurity experts to conduct additional stress testing of their systems, CNN reported
  • In a move that seems to have worked “All Too Well,” pop superstar Taylor Swift spent National Voter Registration Day urging her followers to register to vote; a spokesman for vote.org later said on social media that her Instagram post directed a surge of traffic to their site, averaging 13,000 visitors per half hour.
  • Democrats on National Voter Registration Day reintroduced federal voting rights legislation named for the late lawmaker and civil rights leader John Lewis that would, among other things, restore a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, USA Today reported. But Republicans have opposed the bill, leaving it with a slim chance of passing a divided Congress this year. 

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

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