By Richard Sullins | firstname.lastname@example.org
A healthy democracy needs fair referees whose work goes on unhindered by those whose seek to gum up the machinery of the elections process. It counts on the idea that the fundamentals of the process, like election workers being able to keep their focus on assisting voters, can be done by nonpartisan officials whose work is allowed to proceed without interference.
Now, in nearly half the states and thousands of counties, supporters of former President Donald Trump have flooded elections offices with a historic number of public records requests that seem intended only to occupy the attention of election staff. They are coming at a time when information about dates and deadlines need to be made available, absentee ballot requests await fulfillment, and all the small details of an important national election need to be set in stone.
It’s happening here, too, and the Lee County Board of Elections took action last week to put processes in place to handle the levels of requests that are being seen in those states.
Public records requests are soaring
Off-year cycle elections like the one this year don’t usually draw much attention. But the stakes in 2022 are especially critical for North Carolina. Voters will decide which party will control the Lee County Board of Commissioners and school board for the next two years, whether the Republican majority in the state legislature once again has a supermajority to override the governor’s veto, and who will win a closely contested U.S. Senate race that could determine which party will control the upper chamber of Congress through 2024.
This blizzard of requests submitted by letters and emails, and sometimes featuring identical wording, is forcing elections offices to dedicate precious days of staff time just to respond as they get into the busiest part of their year. Lee County has a full-time professional staff of just four positions charged with carrying out an election for the County’s 39,000 registered voters in just seven weeks.
Lee County Elections Director Jane Rae Fawcett told the Board of Elections on Wednesday that the office is receiving an increasing number of requests for election-related information, many of which seem designed only to throw a wrench into the works. They are about equally divided between in state and out-of-state. A few ask for only a handful of records, but most seek amounts of documentation that could potentially run to a million pages or more.
Some ask for detailed information on plans for carrying out this fall’s voting and there are some even seeking personal contact information for elections directors and board members.
Others broadly ask for every scrap of material that relates to the 2020 and 2022 elections for the purpose of “a lawsuit I am contemplating filing” or information about the usage of a specific model of polling place ballot scanners. Another two page request was filed by an attorney in Conover who said he is counsel to the Republican National Committee.
The Elections Office files also contain one request from within the county, submitted by Republican Party Chairman Jim Womack, who asks for information from the 2020 election.
Womack seeks per-ballot data created by the use of this same type of ballot scanner, an ES&S DS 200 manufactured by Election Systems and Software. Womack asked a type of file from each scanner known as “Cast Vote Records” or CVRs. However, this kind of information is excluded from public disclosure by the state’s public records law.
In another instance, the work of two staff members over a day and a half – a total of 24 staff hours – was required to respond fully to a large and specific public records request. And at least for the moment, every response to a request for information must be reviewed by the county attorney before it can be released.
While the office and the board are completely supportive of the public’s right to know the workings of their government, Fawcett said she doesn’t have the staff to carry out election activities necessary in preparation for 2022 and also be fully responsive to the requests of citizens for information this close to an election.
While the Lee County Elections Board may sometimes be divided on the minutiae of how elections are to be conducted, the three Democrats and two Republicans were unified Wednesday in their belief that the number and nature of most of these requests seemed intent on keeping the staff busy and in creating a level of distraction that could threaten the integrity of the 2022 election.
“We just don’t have the staff to handle the sheer volume of requests coming in now,” said Democrat Jon Silverman. “The threat of litigation by citizens could bring this office to a complete stop in a hurry.”
The Public Records Act requires state agencies respond to requests in a “reasonable” amount of time, although it doesn’t define “reasonable” in this context. But every member of the Elections Board sided with Silverman when he said “I think that in this case, ‘reasonable’ means that responding to the request doesn’t interfere with running this election.”
Republican member Harry Stryffeler agreed.
“Every one of these requests has to be considered and dealt with,” he said. “They aren’t going away, but we are not geared up to handle this. The best thing we can tell them under these circumstances is to say that we are working on it and will get to it when we get to it. Let’s send a response that says ‘we have received your request and we will respond as quickly as we can.'”
Getting professional help
The board went even further when it voted unanimously to request additional funding from the Lee County Board of Commissioners to pay for the services of an attorney specializing in election law, as well as a full-time assistant to help with public information requests, naming the volume of public records requests “a tangential attempt to obstruct the running of this election.”
“None of us works every day in voter law and not one of us keeps up with it every day,” Stryffeler said. “We need specialized help in responding to the public information requests and also other incidents that could come out of this election.”
The request for these positions will be heard by the Commissioners at its 6 p.m. meeting on October 3 at the McSwain Center on Tramway Road.