Pro-Trump activists overwhelm election officials with demands for sprawling records

Aug 3 (Reuters) – Pro-Trump operatives are flooding local officials with public records requests to seek evidence of the former president’s false stolen election claims and to gather intelligence on voting machines and voters , adding to the chaos rocking the US electoral system .

The Maricopa County Recorder’s Office in Arizona, an election battleground state, filed 498 public records requests this year, up 130 from all of last year. Officials in Washoe County, Nevada responded to 88 requests for public records, two-thirds more than in 2021. And the number of requests to the North Carolina state Board of Elections has already nearly equaled last year’s total of 229.

The influx of requests overwhelms staff overseeing elections in some jurisdictions, fueling baseless allegations of voter fraud and raising concerns about the inadvertent release of information that could be used to hack into voting systems, according to a report. dozen election officials interviewed by Reuters.

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Republican and Democratic election officials said they viewed some of the demands as an abuse of freedom of information laws designed to ensure government transparency. The demands for records faced by many of the country’s 8,800 election offices have become “bulky and daunting” since the 2020 election, said Kim Wyman, head of election security at the Federal Cyber ​​and Security Agency. infrastructure (CISA). Last year, when she left her post as secretary of state in Washington, the state’s top election official, her office had a two-year backlog of document requests.

“You always have a group of people in every state who believe the election was stolen,” said Wyman, a Republican.

In April, Maricopa County, Arizona’s official responsible for responding to public records requests, Ilene Haber, tasked four of her nine employees with removing 20,000 records from storage boxes, sorting them for scanning, and then disposing of them. carefully put them back in their place. . It took four days.

Staff members were filling out just one of many records requests from Haystack Investigations, which had requested chain of custody records for the 2.1 million ballots cast in the election. The firm indicates on its website that it conducts various surveys for corporations, law firms and individuals. The company worked on Arizona’s “forensic audit,” the examination of Trump’s defeat in the county by pro-Trump supporters that ended last year without uncovering voter fraud.

Labor-intensive Haystack demands illustrate the growing challenge facing stretched election offices across the country. In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, large inquiries like the one submitted by Haystack represent about a quarter of the total the office has received this year, said Haber, director of communications and voter services for the county registrar’s office. from Maricopa.

“The requests are getting bigger, more detailed, heavier and go even further back” in time, she said.

Heather Honey, who runs Pennsylvania-based Haystack, said the requests were unrelated to the company’s work on the Arizona audit and were about her own research. “All are significant and contribute to specific professional research activities,” said Honey, who searched for similar records related to the Pennsylvania elections.

Local officials told Reuters the increase in demands from Holocaust deniers was drowning their staff in extra work at a time when they were struggling to recruit and retain election administrators essential to democracy. Election workers have already faced an onslaught of death threats and harassment from Trump activists. Reuters has documented more than 900 such hostile posts since the 2020 vote.

“The problem is burnout,” said Jamie Rodriguez, the acting registrar of voters for Washoe County, Nevada. “With burnout comes the potential for mistakes.”

Rodriguez took over this week as the former clerk, who resigned after facing death threats and other forms of harassment.

Ryan Macias, election security consultant for CISA, compared the swarm of requests for records to a cyber denial-of-service attack, in which hackers try to overwhelm a network with internet traffic, and said it creates potential safety risks given the constraints. are already weighing on election workers.

“We have the attrition rate; we have people who are threatened by the community, people who receive death threats, people who are overworked,” Macias said at a rally of election officers. state in Wisconsin on July 19.

SECURITY RISKS

All 50 US states have freedom of information laws that are routinely used by journalists, lawyers, academics and ordinary citizens to access government records. These statutes are intended to ensure that the public has the information necessary to hold its leaders accountable. Local officials told Reuters they believe in the importance of such laws and said they are trying to find creative ways to ease the burden of election-related claims for their employees.

Rather than ask for a larger budget, Maricopa County’s Haber said she trained her entire team to help respond. Washoe County is temporarily halting production of materials at some point before the election, to ensure staff can focus on administering the vote, Rodriguez said. Donald Palmer, a commissioner for the Federal Election Assistance Commission, told a July 8 meeting of state secretaries in Baton Rouge that they should help local officials respond more effectively to the deluge of requests, such as example by creating a “reading room”. site to simultaneously respond to redundant requests from different people.

Rodriguez said most of his nine current staff joined in 2021 or 2022 after a wave of staff departures. She tries to limit their overtime to keep them fresh for November.

But the requests for recordings do not stop. One request sought various information about county election workers in the 2022 primary, including their phone number, mailing address and party affiliation. Another was filed in late June by Robert Beadles, a businessman who moved from California to Reno in 2019 and now leads a movement to advance voter fraud theories and target politicians who don’t support his agenda. Beadles requested 38 different data sets.

Beadles tells visitors to his website, operationsunlight.com, to send requests to their county clerks for a list of voters in the November 2020 election, broken down by voting method, and the total number of ballots cast. submitted for each candidate. He asks them to email the records to Shiva Ayyadurai, one of the main vendors of voter fraud plots.

Neither Beadles nor Ayyadurai responded to emails seeking comment.

As resource-strapped government staff struggle to keep up with the thorough investigations, some election officials fear slipping up and leaking information that could compromise election security.

Samuel Derheimer, director of government affairs at voting equipment maker Hart InterCivic, said his company has seen an explosion of requests from election officials to help determine when the release of certain records threatens election integrity. . Requests for public records sometimes target operational manuals containing security protocols that should not be made public, he said.

Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said one of the challenges is analyzing whether seemingly separate individuals or groups might be working together to piece together sensitive equipment information. and voting processes.

“That’s when your antenna starts going up,” she said. “We have to spend a lot of extra time thinking in those terms.”

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Reporting by Nathan Layne; edited by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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