COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Election deniers are flooding the inboxes of workers who oversee elections in Franklin County and across Ohio.
Since July, the Franklin County Board of Elections has received 135 public record requests seeking information about the results of the 2020 general election, according to spokesperson Aaron Sellers – an influx that Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said has hit all 88 boards of elections as they gear up for the November general election, with military voting beginning next week.
Whether inquiring about voting technology or requesting a copy of the 636,000 ballots cast by Franklin County residents in 2020, the requests appear to be part of an organized effort challenging former President Donald Trump’s defeat.
“There’s the 2019 election, 2020 election, the general election, there’s requests that we’ve gotten that they want everything – they want every ballot, they want every absentee ballot, every ballot cast in-person,” Sellers said.
As the Ohio Association of Election Officials prepares to host a video conference call to speak with members about the influx, LaRose issued a memorandum Monday to the state’s boards of elections advising them how to handle the requests that have “created an enormous amount of justifiable frustration and anxiety.”
“I am a staunch defender of transparency in our elections and the importance of public trust in their outcomes; however, we need to reconcile those objectives with the task before us,” LaRose said. “In many cases, basic compliance often involves thousands of staff hours and potentially tens of thousands of dollars in reproduction costs, all while preparing for the impending third statewide election of 2022.”
‘An outcome of the ‘Big Lie’’
The inundation of requests reflects the notions touted by Trump and some of his supporters who claim, without evidence, that the 2020 election was rigged to favor President Joe Biden, according to Paul Beck, an emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University.
“This is an outcome of the ‘Big Lie,’ and all over the country, I think Trump has stoked anger over the 2020 election, won’t let it go, and I’m not surprised that many of those requests look the same because I think it’s an organized effort,” Beck said.
There have been few cases of voter fraud found in Ohio by the state’s own officials. In 2021, LaRose said his office found 13 non-citizens who cast ballots in the 2020 election. He discovered another four in 2022, but could not confirm who they voted for in either case. On a widespread scale, however, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed no evidence of a coordinated voter fraud effort that could have altered the results of the 2020 general election, NBC News reported.
In Ohio, the 2022 elections — in which major races such as governor and an open U.S. Senate seat are being contested — were complicated by having two primaries, one in May for most races and another in August for state legislative races, all because of the state redistricting committee continued to pass district maps that were later rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court as favoring Republicans too heavily.
“Having to worry about some of these things, and past elections and requests and that type of thing, could potentially slow us down to do what we’re here to do, which is to administer an election,” Sellers said.
As the largest county in Ohio, Sellers said the Franklin County Board of Elections is better equipped than others to comb through the requests, like a rural county where staffing may be as sparse as four to five workers.
‘Aggrieved citizens’ request cybersecurity, voting machine reports
Under state law, LaRose said all public entities are required to respond to records requests “in a reasonable amount of time under the circumstances.”
There are limitations, however, to what types of requests the board is required to fulfill, and Sellers said the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office — which serves as the legal authority for elections boards — is helping comb through the requests to determine whether they can be fulfilled in a timely manner and aren’t too broad.
One requester with the Texas-based election integrity campaign TrueTheVote took issue with election management systems operated by Konnech, a company based in Michigan. But the Konnech products in question, Sellers said, have never been used in Franklin County’s elections.
“You’d think before they blast it out to all 88 counties, they’d check to see if we use that system,” he said.
Some requests appear to be copied and pasted from templates, as the board received identical emails from dozens of different “aggrieved citizens,” Sellers said.
“I am an aggrieved citizen of the United States and of the state of [NAME OF STATE], and I am contemplating filing a lawsuit against the relevant parties pertaining to the continuing concerns I have regarding the integrity of all elections that took place after December 31, 2019,” a FOIA request to the Franklin County Board of Elections read.
The board also received requests about individual Franklin County residents’ presidential picks and other personal information that is not maintained by the board in order to protect voters’ privacy.
“We have their address, we have their ID, their voter ID, but when it comes to knowing who you voted for in any election, we don’t have that information,” he said.
In his memo, LaRose said voters’ personal email addresses and phone numbers may be provided to the board for the sake of inconvenience, like quickly contacting a voter if an issue arises with the voter’s ballot, but he said legally they may be treated as “non-records” and subject to release.
“To put it bluntly, disclosing these non-records could potentially discourage citizens from sharing important contact information or even from engaging in their civic duty at all,” LaRose said.
Margaret Kwoka, a law professor at Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law, said while the use of widescale public record requests is not something the U.S. has historically seen, the influx is unsurprising given the “variety of hot-button” political issues across the country.
Even though the public has a right to learn about election processes, oversight procedures or the use of technology provided by private companies, Kwoka said there’s a “hard balance to strike” between transparency and ensuring elections are adequately administered.
“There are topics, of course, where there’s a lot of legitimate public interest in, but yet we shouldn’t want a broad transparency law to become weaponized against the agency,” Kwoka said. “We want it to be effective for oversight without turning into a way to deter the agency from serving its core functions.”
Franklin County received 100% accuracy rating in latest election count
The influx of requests comes after the board was audited to determine how accurately the results of August’s primary election were recorded, a process that follows every election, Sellers said.
Ballots were hand-counted in a random sample of precincts, and the board received a 100% accuracy rating – a perfect match between the voter’s electronic ballot records and the hand recount, Sellers said.
“We’re in the elections business, and obviously counting is an important part of it,” he said. “When you come back with 100% of the ballots cast, and that, that’s certainly something that I think the public would feel very good about.”
Sellers said while it’s crucial for government agencies to be open and transparent with the public, he “can’t stress it enough” that the board is a bipartisan team, just like the other 87 boards of elections in Ohio.
Looking ahead to the 2024 general elections, Beck said he wouldn’t be surprised if public record requests about the “Big Lie, ” as Trump has called it, continue to come in future years.
“One doesn’t like to see the questioning of the legitimacy of the electoral process,” Beck said, “because it can erode people’s faith in the quality of our elections and the freedom and fairness of our elections.”
Read LaRose’s full memorandum below: