Trump backers flood election offices with requests as 2022 vote nears

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Mike Lindell, CEO of My Pillow, at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.

Supporters of former president Donald Trump have swamped local election offices across the nation in recent weeks with a coordinated campaign of requests for 2020 voting records, in some cases paralyzing preparations for the fall election season.

In nearly two dozen states and scores of counties, election officials are fielding what many describe as an unprecedented wave of public records requests in the final weeks of summer, one they say may be intended to hinder their work and weaken an already strained system. The avalanche of sometimes identically worded requests has forced some to dedicate days to the process of responding even as they scurry to finalize polling locations, mail out absentee ballots and prepare for early voting in October, officials said.

In Wisconsin, one recent request asks for 34 different types of documents. In North Carolina, hundreds of requests came in at state and local offices on one day alone. In Kentucky, officials don’t recognize the technical-sounding documents they’re being asked to produce – and when they seek clarification, the requesters say they don’t know, either.

The use of mass records requests by the former president’s supporters effectively weaponizes laws aimed at promoting principles of a democratic system – that the government should be transparent and accountable. Public records requests are a key feature of that system, used by regular citizens, journalists and others. In interviews, officials emphasized that they are trying to follow the law and fulfill the requests, but they also believe the system is being abused.

“When you are asking for every single document under the sun, it becomes difficult for us to do our job,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.

Many administrators said they suspect that may be the point.

They believe that those organizing the effort are not out for information but rather are trying to cause chaos as their fall crunchtime approaches, making it more difficult to run smooth elections and giving critics new openings to attack the integrity of election administration in the United States. They point to the identical nature of the requests as well as the number of duplicates individual counties have received – each one of which they must respond to, by law.

“It’s the public’s right to transparency, and I understand that,” said Chuck Broerman, the Republican clerk of El Paso County, Colo., who has hired an additional employee for the 10-person elections division to handle public records requests. “But at the same time, it’s been reported to me that some of this has been done perhaps deliberately to break the system. And you have to ask yourself, why do they want to do that?”

The surge of inquiries reflects the latest example of the extraordinary pressure that election officials have faced since the 2020 election. Since then, state and local election administrators have dealt with the fallout from a concerted campaign by Trump and his backers to undermine confidence in U.S. elections, including a barrage of threats and personal attacks. Hundreds of officials have left their jobs as a result, administrators say.

Many of those submitting the requests say they are following the call of several leading election deniers allied with Trump, including MyPillow founder Mike Lindell. Some claim that there is more to be known about voting machine use in the 2020 election, and the data they are requesting will provide one piece of the puzzle.

“We believe those who have nothing to hide, hide nothing,” said Carol Snow, one such activist in Burke County, N.C., in text exchanges with The Washington Post. “Their lack of transparency causes distrust of the electronic voting systems we are required to use to cast our ballots.”

Trump contested the election in numerous battlegrounds nationwide, with state and federal judges rejecting dozens of lawsuits claiming the result was not valid. Post-election audits failed to identify widespread fraud. Since then, dozens of election-denying Republicans have won their party’s nominations for elected office with authority over election administration.

The latest flood of requests began immediately after Lindell, a prominent Trump ally, exhorted his followers at a mid-August gathering in Springfield, Mo., to obtain copies of what’s known as “cast vote records” from every election office in the country. Lindell live-streamed his “Moment of Truth” summit on his own social media platforms and got a boost of viewership from former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who broadcast his podcast from the event on both days.

A cast vote record shows how an individual voted across the ballot. Ballots themselves are cast vote records, but some voting machines can also generate the data in report form – enormous spreadsheets that academics have long used to track split-ticket voting and other voting patterns.

Lindell, who has spent the past two years spreading unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, said in an interview he learned about cast vote records this summer and soon after began urging people to request them and send him copies, so that he could make the case that voting machines should be abolished.

Federal law requires governments to keep election records for 22 months, and Lindell said he was trying to obtain as many of the cast vote records as he could before that period expired for the 2020 cycle over the Labor Day weekend. He said copies of the records have “poured in by the thousands” since he put out his call to action.

“These machine companies have played out the clock, so to speak,” Lindell said. “But people can request them and then obviously we can preserve them.”

Lindell disputed the claim that the blast of requests was intended to disrupt election offices – and questioned whether administrators were trying to keep information from the public.

“This is to save our country,” Lindell said. “They don’t want to do work? That’s what they’re paid to do.”

Election officials and their advocates said they are dispirited that Lindell continues to encourage his followers to distrust the voting process. Many counties have already published electronic images of their ballots, giving skeptics all they need to conduct their own hand recount of the 2020 election. The fact that offices are nonetheless being inundated with requests, some officials said, raised questions about the true motives of those who are instigating them.

“The only way to look at it is as a denial-of-service attack on local government,” said Matt Crain, who leads the Colorado County Clerks Association, using the term for an intentional bombardment of a computer network for the purpose of shutting it down. “The irony is, if Lindell wanted the cast vote records, he could have just put in a request to get them. They don’t do that. They put out this call to action for people to do it, and they know it’s going to inundate these offices, especially medium and small offices who are understaffed and overwhelmed already. They know exactly what they’re doing.”

Many of the requests include demands that counties retain the records because the requester is contemplating litigation. In one such email sent Friday to the elections director in Forsyth County, N.C., a woman who identified herself as Mona Faggione wrote: “I AM CONSIDERING SUING YOU FOR YOUR AND/OR YOUR ORGANIZATION’S INVOLVEMENT IN THE FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS THAT WILL SOON BE PROVEN TO HAVE TAKEN PLACE SINCE 2017.”

That same phrase, written in capital letters, appears in several other requests sent to other North Carolina counties and provided to The Post by the state board of elections. The requests, including the names and email addresses of the senders, are public records in North Carolina and some other states. Faggione did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’ve gotten hundreds of requests today alone across the state,” Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said in an interview on Friday. “It’s overwhelming.”

Gannon said local election officials are already deep into their election preparations: hiring poll workers, securing polling locations, mailing absentee and military ballots and finalizing plans for early voting, which begins Oct. 20.

Trump defeated Biden in North Carolina by less than two points – his narrowest victory in any state.

Around the country, requests for election records began to surge when Trump contested the 2020 result. The Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office has received nearly four times as many requests for election records this year compared to the same point in 2018, according to that office. Michigan’s Bureau of Elections has spent 600 hours processing records requests this year, which it estimates is triple the time it has spent on them in the past. The Wisconsin Elections Commission has received an average of 17 records requests a month this year – four times its monthly average in 2020.

Milwaukee’s Woodall-Vogg said she has been swamped with requests over the last two years, including one that came in asking for 34 types of documents, such as poll books, voted ballots, spoiled ballots, remade ballots, absentee voter forms and voter registration applications.

In Canton, outside Detroit, township clerk Michael Siegrist (D) has contended with a string of records requests from former state senator Patrick Colbeck (R), who spoke at Lindell’s summit and has written a book contending the 2020 election was stolen. Siegrist rejected one request from Colbeck for computer log files that Siegrist said would have put future elections at risk.

“Predatory FOIA requests like this that really are designed to kind of bully, intimidate or potentially gain access to information that legally you’re not entitled to,” he said, using shorthand for the state’s Freedom of Information Act. “This really does take away my staff from doing their legitimate job.”

Colbeck said by email that he did not trust that Siegrist had protected the township’s systems from malware and accused Siegrist of “gross negligence.”

The deluge of requests has not been limited to battleground states, extending to reliably Republican places such as Kentucky. Secretary of State Michael Adams (R) said that in some cases, the requests use seemingly technical terms that the clerks can’t decipher. When the clerks ask for clarification, he said, those making the requests can’t always explain what they’re looking for.

“There’s some decent people, too, that just want to have information and I respect that, so we certainly accommodate those people,” he said. “But I think some of these really intend to disrupt the process. And no matter what you do, they will move the goal posts.”

“It just proves that the statement these people make that all they want is to ensure a fair election, all they want is to ensure public confidence in the integrity, that’s a lie,” Adams said of some of those making requests to county clerks. “Their whole goal is to destabilize our system.”

Some of the requests have come with an attachment called “CVRs for Dummies” – an instruction sheet modeled after the popular how-to series that explains to activists what a cast vote record is and how to request it. Election administrators who received the attachment speculated that the requesters assumed it would be helpful for officials, too.

“Cast Vote Records (CVRs) have proven to be one of the most useful, readily available forms of election records,” the instructions say. “Analysis of CVRs along with comparing CVRs from different states and counties has helped to identify election fraud all over the country. We ask that everyone submit a public records request to their home county requesting the CVRs for the 2020 election, and any subsequent election.”

Election officials say the premise behind the requests is flawed, and cast vote records don’t provide any evidence of fraud.

The attachment appears to have been circulated by two election deniers, Draza Smith and Jeff O’Donnell, who have given speeches around the country with other prominent leaders of the movement, including Lindell, claiming without evidence that millions of votes for Trump were switched to Biden in 2020. O’Donnell, who calls himself the Lone Raccoon online, took credit during Lindell’s summit for helping get people to file records requests.

“I have one of the best groups of followers in the world, Raccoon Army,” O’Donnell said from the stage. “I set them out to start making public records requests everywhere for this information and, lo and behold, over time and working together they managed to get hundreds and hundreds of these cast vote records and we’re still getting them today.”

O’Donnell and Smith run a website featuring a tally of the cast vote records they have collected, and social media posts show that they began encouraging others to gather them as early as May. According to the site, they have collected the records from 23 states since mid-August, including 54 from Georgia, 36 from Ohio and 28 from Texas.

The how-to guide instructs activists not to request a CVR if their county is already on the list, but hundreds of activists appear not to be following that advice. Neither Smith nor O’Donnell responded to emails seeking comment, but Smith posted on the social media site Telegram a critique of election officials who are complaining about the crush of records requests.

“This is not ONLY about 2020, but about the problematic system we have in place that needs to be rectified,” Smith wrote. “We will continue gathering information and doing research on all of the elections about which we have data: past, future and present.”

The slew of requests is particularly complicated in Texas, where the office of the Secretary of State has instructed county administrators that ballots and cast vote records are not public until after the 22-month period expires. As a result, counties are preparing to provide the 2020 records, but they assumed they could not do so until this week.

“There’s a lot of concern that we’re going to destroy this stuff. We’re not,” said Chris Davis, the election administrator in Williamson County, Texas, outside of Austin, who said he has received three dozen requests since Aug. 18.

An opinion issued by Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) just days after Lindell’s conference is adding to the confusion. The opinion contradicts the secretary of state’s guidance by declaring that all ballots are public records immediately after a county tallies the unofficial result – typically, the night of the election. Election administrators say the ruling has unleashed a flurry of consultations with state election officials and county attorneys about whether they will be required to make ballots available for inspection the day after the November vote.

“There is language in the election code that these are sealed for 22 months and you can’t get into that box without a court order from a district judge,” said Trudy Hancock, the elections chief in Brazos County and the head of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

“Paxton’s opinion definitely goes against that,” she said. “My concern is the integrity of those ballots if we have a recount, if we have an election contest or anything of that nature. We have to make sure those ballots are exactly what they were when they voted. Someone could alter that ballot.”

Paxton’s office did not respond to repeated emails seeking comment. Lindell called Paxton’s opinion a “blessing.”

One complication of the slew of requests is how widely records laws vary from state to state. In North Carolina, the State Board of Elections has offered guidance to counties that neither ballots nor cast vote records are public. However, some of those making the requests have disputed that guidance and filed a public-records complaint.

Sara LaVere, the elections director in Brunswick County, N.C., said the requests are coming in “hot and heavy” – 10 to 15 since mid-August.

LaVere emphasized that none of the requesters have been hostile, but she said some of their requests have been challenging. One person asked for the entire recount of a contested state Supreme Court race from 2020 – a very long paper record resembling an adding machine tape that took days for one employee to copy.

Another request for absentee ballot envelopes led LaVere to send one of her employees to the office’s warehouse to dig out the relevant boxes. That person also manages the county’s polling places – a busy job with the election fast approaching.

“Today, he had to go to a polling place,” LaVere said. “But yesterday he spent the whole day in the warehouse.”