Election deniers ramp up public records requests in Missouri, across the country
The sheer number of requests is overwhelming some elections offices as they prepare for the Nov. 8 election. And many fear turning over the records could compromise the secrecy of a voter’s ballot.
Like most people, McDonald County Clerk Kimberly Bell had never heard of a “cast vote record” before this summer.
It’s not a report she’s ever generated after an election in the small county in southwestern Missouri, where she has administered elections for eight years.
But like many county clerks and election officials across the country, Bell has been bombarded with public-record requests, phone calls and drop-in visits asking for the record — an action urged by election denier and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.
During his late August “The Moment of Truth Summit” in Springfield, Lindell called on every one of his followers nationwide to request this record. He believes cast vote records — which are essentially electronic representations of how voters voted — can show irregularities in how and when people voted, revealing the need to investigate for election fraud.
Though the Missouri Secretary of State and Republican county clerks have tried to dispel the debunked theories that Lindell is peddling, some Missouri residents continue to baselessly believe elections can be manipulated through electronic election machines.
While Bell wants to be transparent and responsive, she only has a staff of four. And right now, they’re not only working long hours preparing for the Nov. 8 election and educating residents about the new voting identification requirements, but they are also responsible for the county’s payroll, human resources and accounting.
“Some of these requests are very extensive,” Bell said, “and it’s near impossible for us to stop what we’re doing for those. By no means am I saying that we don’t want to have the time or don’t try to find the time.”
The big question facing Missouri election officials, along with those across the country, is whether cast vote records are open to the public or if releasing them violates voters’ privacy.
Acknowledging the questions surrounding the requests could ultimately end up being resolved by a lawsuit, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft emailed every local election authority on Aug. 30 asking them to be sure to keep all records related to the 2020 election “until we have clarity on what is public or closed records by the court.”
Two weeks later, Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller, a Republican, filed a lawsuit against a woman who submitted a public-records request for cast vote records.
In his lawsuit, Schoeller cites a provision in the state constitution that forbids election authorities from releasing “processed ballot materials in electronic form” or “computer programs relating to each election.”
“To my knowledge, there’s not been a Missouri case that’s dealt with the issue of whether what it is that they’re requesting falls under the ambit of that provision,” said Schoeller’s attorney, N. Austin Fax. “So we’re asking the court for guidance on that.”
Schoeller’s second question to the court is whether generating a report that election officials don’t already have on hand would be mandated under the state’s public records law, known as the Sunshine Law.
David Roland, an attorney and director of litigation at the libertarian Freedom Center of Missouri who has represented numerous Sunshine lawsuits, is defending Springfield resident Laurie Huddleston, who Schoeller sued.
In an interview with The Independent, Roland said he commends Schoeller for posing these questions to the court, adding that government officials must pay court costs if they sue a resident to get clarity on Sunshine Law issues.
Huddleston will argue these records should be open, Roland said.
“The more transparency we can bring to the election process, the better equipped we will be to address those concerns,” he said. “Where we don’t have answers, that’s where the suspicion and the worries about the outcome of these elections fester.”
Cast vote records
Election equipment vendor Corey Nibert has received calls from Bell and other election officials asking what a cast vote record is and how they can generate it. To better understand the onslaught of requests, Nibert, whose company Elkins-Swyers provides election equipment statewide, listened to the livestream of the entire Lindell summit.
“What they claim they’re trying to find out, I just don’t see it,” he said, “and we’ve been doing election work since the ‘40s.”
Nibert describes a cast vote record as a report where the tabulator is telling election officials: This is what was marked on each ballot, and this is the date and time it was read.
An election authority can produce an Excel sheet that puts this information in a readable format – and not just the scanned images of the ballots themselves.
Here’s the main problem, Schoeller argues in his lawsuit. The report can be filtered and organized to show the order in which ballots were cast at a location, “which may nullify the secrecy of a voter’s ballot,” the lawsuit states.
Kara Clark Summers, Cape Girardeau County Clerk and president of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, said the potential problem could come when a cast vote record is combined with another open record called a check-in list.
The check-in list shows what time a voter, including the person’s name, checked in on Election Day.
In some smaller counties, where few voters come in at once, Summers said the check-in list would show that the voter checked in at 8 a.m. for example, and then the cast voter record could be organized to show how a person voted at 8:10 a.m.
Combining the two records could potentially show how that person voted.
“People would be livid and irate that how they voted was now public record,” she said.
Roland said Greene County wouldn’t face the problem that Summers explained because it’s a highly populated county.
“I’m not certain how legitimate these concerns are to begin with,” Roland said, “but they’re certainly not presented in this particular case.”
Roland also said that his client is interested in reports generated from touchscreen voting machines in Greene County, not only the tabulators that scan the paper ballots.
Nibert said he believes releasing the records does pose a privacy risk for voters.
“I don’t think that’ll ever be something that Missouri recommends,” he said.
Responding to requests
On any given day, Summers is training election judges and getting out information about the new requirement for voters to present a current state-issued ID at the polls.
She’s also been talking with people like Linda Rantz, who is giving presentations statewide on a report she authored titled, “Missouri Election Fraud: Identifying the Evidence Outside the Machines.”
“Our goal is to identify potential weaknesses in Missouri election procedures that can result in our votes being ‘canceled’ by fraud, ‘stolen’ by bad actors, or otherwise diluted by problems or flaws in our complex system,” Rantz report states.
Rantz, an Osage County resident, is mentioned in Schoeller’s lawsuit, as someone who not only spoke at Lindell’s summit but who also operates the website and blog frankspeech.com that features Lindell’s videos. She provided a form for requesting the cast vote records, the suit states.
Summers recently explained to Rantz that small counties in particular don’t have enough workers to respond to the numerous requests.
“We’ve been hit with so many of them,” Summers said. “We all want to be transparent, but we also have a job to do. Some people are having trouble juggling this.”
At the end of September, Bell held an election information night, where Nibert, Schoeller, seven other local county clerks and co-director of elections for the Secretary of State’s office Chrissy Peters answered questions posed by McDonald County residents.
Since then, the requests have subsided significantly.
“I don’t know if the word got out through the people that did attend or what,” she said, “but we haven’t had those requests.”
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