OLYMPIA – The 2020 presidential election brought on questions of election integrity, attacks of elections officials and questions about fraud.
For county auditors, those concerns have manifested in an unprecedented and time-consuming way: a slew of public records requests related to the 2020 election.
Most of them seem to be coming from the same template, which auditors say likely originated online.
When the volume of requests became so large, Whatcom County Auditor Diana Bradrick, co-chair of the state auditors’ election committee, started holding regular meetings to help auditors coordinate responses and ensure they all had the same information about how quickly and accurately to fill the requests.
“Who knew, right?” Bradrick said. ”This was totally not expected.”
But as auditors began preparing for this year’s midterm election, the requests began to take time away from election prep as they had to spend hours filling requests, gathering documents and going through Washington’s public records law. Bradrick estimated that she has spent 75% of her time in the past year on public records, whether it be in her office or helping others across the state.
And it could just be the beginning as county auditors prepare for an uptick in requests after this week’s election.
Washington isn’t alone. Nationwide, elections officials have been overwhelmed with public records requests regarding the 2020 election as a number of organizations and individuals are still looking for voter fraud.
Experts and elections officials have continued to disprove claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election, but that hasn’t stopped candidates from campaigning on claims of election fraud, kept armed poll watchers from showing up at elections sites, or prevented lawsuits from being filed on the 2020 election results.
According to CNN, Maricopa County, Arizona, had received more than 830 requests through the end of August, as compared to 369 requests in all of 2021.
According to ProPublica, Surry County, North Carolina, had received 81 records requests through October , as opposed to the half-dozen it normally gets annually.
In Washington, the number of public records requests are “dramatically up,” Derrick Nunnally, spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of State, wrote in an email. In the past year, the office has received 499 requests. Before 2020, the year-to-year average was 300 requests. Those don’t include requests sent directly to county auditors.
In Whatcom County, the auditor’s office has received 35 requests this year, compared to 20 in 2021, six requests in 2020 and one request in 2019, according to Bradrick.
In Spokane County, there have been 56 public records requests this year, according to data from the auditor’s office. In 2021, there were 11 requests. In 2019 and 2020 respectively, there were four requests.
“It’s burned up a lot of staff time that should be devoted to performing an election,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said. “It has put some stress on staff and on me to try to respond to the requests.”
What’s being requested
Much of what’s being requested has to do with the 2020 presidential election, auditors say.
Pend Oreille County Auditor Marianne Nichols said people are trying to check election results from 2020 because they’re “curious” and are trying to find out as much information as possible.
“People are still trying to ‘audit’ the 2020 election so that they can prove that the vote count was incorrect,” Dalton said.
Dalton said a lot of what they’re looking for is actual ballots, either physical ballots or the cast vote record – a computer breakdown of how people cast their votes. Under state law, any form of a ballot, including an image of the paper ballot or a digital representation of the ballot, is exempt from disclosure, Bradrick said.
A number of other requests have come in for oath envelopes, the place where voters sign their name, Nichols said.
Under a new Washington law passed last year, signatures and phone numbers on ballots are exempt from the Public Records Act. Anyone who wants to see signatures can come in person to a county auditor’s office and view them, but they can’t photograph them in any way. Bradrick said she has only heard from one county where someone has come in person to inspect ballot signatures.
Another ask: computer manuals and security information.
Bradrick said some people have gained possession of counties’ computer manuals, so they know exactly what reports or security information to ask for. Anything with IP addresses, user names or code has to be redacted, Bradrick said.
Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, who is running for secretary of state, said in a debate last month that she is concerned with people requesting computer manuals and then making more detailed requests based off the manuals.
It could be used to compromise the security of elections, she said.
Many requesters use form letters. Dalton said she’s had requests come in where people acknowledge they don’t know what the record they’re asking for is, only that they’ve been told to ask for it.
An August blog post on the Skagit County GOP website by chairman Bill Bruch pointed to a number of concerns with state elections and encouraged readers to look for cast voter records. The post included language from state law and responses from county auditors when given a public records request for cast voter records.
Bruch also pointed to a need to clean state voter rolls, which he said contained a number of voters that had moved addresses or didn’t vote from that address.
Dalton said this post and others from the Skagit County Republicans generated a number of public records requests.
Additional requests take up staff time
Dalton said her staff works on the requests when they have time, but some of them have been paused as they prepare for next week’s election.
Some requests don’t take that long to fill, especially if they are asking for a record that is not releasable, such as a ballot or cast vote record, Dalton said.
Under state law, agencies have five days to respond to a request with a note acknowledging receipt and a timeline for when the request will be fulfilled.
Even the ones that can’t be fulfilled may still take time, she said. There is quite a bit of legal research that goes into determining whether a record can be disclosed.
If it can be released, however, it can take hours of work to fill, she said. For example, if someone requested all emails for the previous three years concerning communication with the secretary of state’s office, “that’s going to take us hundreds and hundreds of hours,” Dalton said.
Some larger counties have a separate public records officer with a team to help file the requests, but smaller counties don’t always have that luxury.
Pend Oreille County has recently hired someone to help with public records at the county level, but her office still handles the ones related to elections.
She said she can only work on public records requests when she has time between monitoring elections, issuing car tabs or filing marriage licenses.
“As much as I would like to devote time to them, I’m a tiny county,” Nichols said.
As the requests pile up, auditors said they have had to balance being transparent and protecting the secrecy of the ballot.
Bradrick said auditors are not trying to deliberately and unnecessarily withhold information, but a lot of what’s being requested can’t be disclosed because of privacy or security reasons.
When she gets a request, Bradrick said she starts by looking at state law and seeing if there is an exemption for what’s being asked. If not, she pulls the record and goes through to ensure nothing needs to be redacted.
If there’s not an exemption, the public has a right to the information, she said.
“It makes it difficult because you do want to be open and transparent, but the voters do entrust us to make sure we’re not giving out their signatures and not divulging how they voted,” Nichols said.
Dalton said she encourages people to become observers so they can learn more about the election process by watching the ballot processing.
Dalton said she likes having observers because her staff can answer questions in person as opposed to someone making up a narrative based on records they may not understand.
“They are writing their own narrative, which may not have any correlation to reality because they’re basing it on their experience and their knowledge, which may have nothing to do with how elections actually function,” Dalton said.
More to come after 2022 election
The requests from the 2020 election have prepared auditors for how to respond to similar requests that they expect after the 2022 election, Dalton said.
Moving forward, Dalton said auditors and elections officials have several potential requests for the Legislature for updating the Public Records Act for the digital age.
“The Public Records Act was written for paper,” she said. “The digital age brings its own challenges.”
Anderson said in a debate last month that she might want to look into posting more documents that are repetitively requested online to take some weight off of the auditors.
She also said it may be time for technologists, attorneys, records officers and auditors to look at what they are releasing in terms of security and computer systems as those could become security issues.