Amateur fraud hunters bury election officials in public records requests
Former President Donald Trump's stolen election lie has election officials drowning in paperwork.
Fifteen months after President Joe Biden won the White House, state, county and city-level administrators in at least five states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Arizona and Virginia — report being inundated with time-consuming records requests and inquiries, most of them coming from amateur fraud hunters looking for proof of debunked conspiracy theories.
The officials say the number of asks, which include requests for voter rolls, images of ballots and technical information about voting machines, has surged in the last year despite overwhelming evidence that U.S. elections are fair and free. Of those states, Biden won all but Florida in his path to victory over Trump.
"Every other day there's a new public records request on something from 2020 or some process,” said Wesley Wilcox, the supervisor of elections in Marion County, Florida. “I spend the vast majority of my day either just providing accurate information, fighting myths and rumors, responding to public records requests."
Wilcox, an elected Republican who runs elections in the county of 375,000 residents, said the requests account for “over 60, 70 percent” of his time and have him working more than 50 hours a week, when ordinarily he'd be working an average of 40 hours a week. During periods of early voting, he added, he works upward of 80 hours a week.
Election officials in all five states said the requesters were focused on election fraud conspiracy theories, 2020 election results or election processes and equipment. While Wilcox said he has received requests from a group called Defend Florida, which says online that it is a citizens group that aims to ensure election integrity, the bulk appear to have come from individuals, according to all of the officials. Many requesters appear to be seeking proof of wrongdoing or misconduct, some officials said.
All but one of the officials interviewed for this article said the time-consuming requests are stretching their limited resources and that they take up a significant amount of time.
Ottawa County, Michigan, County Clerk Justin Roebuck said public records requests and engaging directly with concerned voters accounts for about 25 percent of the current workload for the elections staff, which is made up of four people, including him. That's down from about 50 percent of their time last year, he said.
"It's just not normal to deal with constituent concerns, voter education and requests related to the election that happened two years ago," he said of his county of nearly 300,000 people, adding that the added requests are straining resources in his "chronically underfunded" department.
Roebuck, an elected Republican, said he has shifted staff responsibilities around from other parts of his office to absorb the added workload but that he expects the office will have to start refusing some requests soon so it can prioritize the next election.
“I have colleagues with counties [that have] a population of 20,000 who are working the front counter. And how do they manage this? We’re in a really challenging time resourcewise,” he said.
The officials who were interviewed said none of the records they pulled to respond to requests had uncovered proof of voter fraud in the 2020 election, although Dane County, Wisconsin, County Clerk Scott McDonell, an elected Democrat, said one request highlighted two voters registered at post office boxes, which violates state law. Prosecutors have previously declined to prosecute such cases in the area, McDonell said, and voters are typically asked to correct their registrations in those instances.
McDonell, the one official who didn't describe being overrun with requests, said he believes he has dodged many requests by uploading vast amounts of information, including ballot images, online proactively.
Nathan Savidge, the chief registrar and director of elections in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, said he frequently gets records requests, such as inquiries about whether the county’s election machines connect to the internet. The inquiries account for about 25 percent of his workload, he said.
Savidge, a staffer who was appointed to the nonpartisan office by county commissioners, said his office got 30 to 50 requests in 2020 and fielded several hundred in 2021. According to the 2020 census, Northumberland County has fewer than 100,000 residents.
In Philadelphia, Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio said the city has fielded an increase in elections-related requests. While political researchers and parties typically made that type of open records inquiry previously, he said, current requesters appear to be activists or people seeking proof of conspiracy theories who are unfamiliar with the open records request process and what officials are required to share.
“So they don’t usually like the response,” he said. “We’ve had a ton more appeals than we have previously, which is also taxing.”
In Arizona, where the recently released results of a GOP-led ballot review found even more votes for Biden and no fraud, the secretary of state's office says the surge of requests is a significant strain.
"The majority of these requests are broad fishing expeditions that require extensive resources to review and locate responsive documents," said Sophia Solis, the deputy communications director for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. "Our team does not have the funding or staffing to timely address the overwhelming volume of requests that we receive."
The general registrar and director of elections in Fairfax City, Virginia, Brenda Cabrera, said her office was one of many that was hit by a surge of records requests over the last year, which are governed by the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Cabrera is a salaried employee of the city of 24,000 people.
“We started to talk about FOIA being weaponized,” she said. “It’s very time-consuming to respond to FOIA, so you could drag a small office to a standstill just by continuing to issue FOIA requests.”
The requests all but stopped after the November election, when Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race, Cabrera said.
She said she has received just one request since the election was certified.
"The people with seemingly the greatest concerns about our ability to conduct the election, they were able to win the election, " she said, "despite all their concerns and all of the fraud that they presumed was going to be committed."
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com