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Analysis: Public records requests flood NC elections offices

Across North Carolina, self-proclaimed defendants of election integrity are disrupting the day-to-day ways county officials preserve the integrity of elections.

The effort seems to be a new strategy by people who promote the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election: a nationwide barrage of public records requests to county boards of elections. The effort is delaying the officials’ ability to do their jobs — hiring poll workers, ordering ballots, and all the other things required to run smooth elections. 

Patrick Gannon, the public information director for the North Carolina Board of Elections, said county offices are being flooded with requests. 

“They’re not only coming in the form of emails. People are showing up at election offices with public records requests. They’re showing up with video cameras as they drop off the public records requests. They’re emailing them. They’re mailing them. They’re faxing them. They’re coming in by the hundreds,” Gannon said, noting that the requests are going to all 100 county boards of elections in the state.

Public records requests to boards of elections are useful tools for journalists, researchers, and any person who’s genuinely curious about the state’s voting processes. The requests are normally just a trickle and can be handled by the elections staffers. But lately, counties across North Carolina have been overwhelmed, as have counties around the country.

Certain types of requests seem to come in waves, election officials said. For instance, they reported receiving an influx of demands to see “cast vote records” (CVRs), files of scanned ballots usually used by academics and auditors. It is illegal to release them to anyone but election officials in North Carolina, although legal in some states.

Gannon said the high volume of requests have become such a burden that they are distracting workers from the important tasks of preparing for the November election.

“It is having a great effect on the ability of county boards of elections and staff to focus on the task at hand, and that is conducting a fair and accurate 2022 general election,” Gannon said. “Anyone who says otherwise is simply wrong. I talk to county directors every day. I email with them every day. And it’s definitely having an effect.”

Besides asking for records that cannot be released under the law, many of the requests are just arduous.

Daniel Lassiter, the voter services manager at the Durham County Board of Elections, mentioned a request he got this year for the results tapes of the 2020 N.C. Supreme Court race between Cheri Beasley and Paul Newby. The tape, which is different from a cast vote record, looks like a long receipt, so it was tricky to figure out how to scan it onto a single page.

“That did take some time to do,” Lassiter said. He also described a recent request to produce every email his office exchanged with about 15 organizations, a task that required not only tracking down the emails, but redacting sensitive information. 

Gary Sims, the elections director for Wake County, also said the requests can be time-consuming for election workers. 

“Some of these are very, very, very, very cumbersome,” he said.“It could be looking at a 10-foot tape or, if it’s an early voting, be looking at a 20- to 30-foot tape. How do you even copy a 20-foot document that’s only three inches wide or so? Some of them, logistically, we’re trying to figure out — just one after another.”

Although the requests appear to be coming from individuals, several election officials reported language that looked cut-and-pasted from a template. But the officials said answering these requests is their job, and said they intend to fulfill them.

“I don’t really have time to hunt down and search who these people are or what they’re using this information for. That’s not really our goal,” said Lassiter. “Our goal is to respond in a reasonable time, which is what the law states.”

“We all do what we’re obligated to provide,” Sims said.

Still, officials seem a little jumpy.

When asked for clarification about what zero tapes are, Michael Dickerson, the Mecklenburg County elections director, paused for a moment.

“If I tell you that then, geez, now everybody’s gonna ask me for it,” Dickerson said. “Are you looking for it? I’ve never heard of Ninth Street News, no offense. I’m not trying to be funny.” (The correct title is actually The 9th Street Journal).

When asked what groups might be behind the requests, Dickerson said that wasn’t a part of his role.

“That would be your job,” he replied. “It’s a public records request to me. I do not care.”

Sims sees the groups behind these requests as a complicated web, spanning across the country and state.

“Picture one of those CSI crime shows where they have the wall and they take the string and tie this person with this person,” Sims said.

A key figure in the flood of requests seems to be Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who has been a leader among election deniers and hosted a national conference in August in which he called on people to seek vote records. According to the Washington Post, he’s worked with Jeff O’Donnell, who goes by the alias The Lone Raccoon and runs a website filled with falsehoods about election security.

In North Carolina, the requests appear to sprout from a number of groups, some easier to spot than others. They include We the People, Transparent Elections NC, and the North Carolina Audit Force, whose Telegram channel carries messages from The Lone Raccoon. One Lone Raccoon message calls for a hidden army of election deniers. Others refer to news accounts reporting the truth about American elections as “hit pieces.”

Officials in bigger N.C. counties are better able to deal with the flood of requests, although challenges persist.

“Thankfully, I was able to get a person who is dedicated just to handling public records, but no matter what, it not only tries to tie up our office, but it ties up our communications office and also our county attorney’s office,” Sims said. 

Smaller counties lack these resources. They might have a lawyer on retainer, but it’s less likely they have a full department, Sims said.

Lassiter said that Durham is considering hiring a full-time employee to deal with the requests.  Still, he considers himself fortunate that the county hasn’t been as overloaded as other areas.

But for some officials, the chaos is beginning to hit a breaking point.

Sims said he has heard from elections directors in other parts of the state who no longer want to put up with the abuse and pressures of  the job. In his office, he tells his colleagues to send him any angry phone calls or disruptive individuals who show up at the door.

“You want to call and yell at me or cuss at me or threaten me? Okay, if that’s what makes you feel better,” Sims said.

It’s important that his staff members stay focused on doing their job — running North Carolina elections, he said.

“All these people that are trying to do this — do they want people to quit?” Sims said. “Well, how is democracy supposed to work if you don’t have good people making sure things are done properly? And that’s the part that, I guess, is a little sad or disheartening to me.”

Above: Images of the North Carolina Audit Force’s account on Telegram, a social media network.