Copy cat demands for data mirror those in other states

Elections clerks field ‘frivolous requests’ in apparent effort to sow distrust

Thu, 09/08/2022 - 4:30pm

    Clerks across the state have just nine weeks until the pivotal 2022 elections. But their tasks increasingly include responding to misinformed election data requests rooted in national efforts to sow distrust in the process.

    The requests are part of a national trend that is slowing down clerks’ ability to do their jobs. Those efforts stem from skeptics who believe that former President Donald Trump should have won the November 2020 general election, despite officials in several states finding no evidence of widespread fraud. 

    The deluge has also sparked fears from Maine’s top election official that it could end up undermining the public’s trust in the process as already burdened clerks stretch to handle the number of requests.

    “Every hour state and local election officials spend answering frivolous requests is an hour away from the detailed and important work of preparing for our elections,” said Shenna Bellows, the Maine Secretary of State. 

    One of the requests the state has been inundated with is a notice of prospective litigation and demand for records retention, which appears to be a copy-cat notice that election officials in Massachusetts and Kentucky have received. A template for that letter has been linked to Terpsichore “Tore” Maras, a QAnon conspiracy theory promoter and election skeptic who attempted to run for Ohio’s secretary of state office.

    A letter provided by her office asks Bellows to retain “any and all records pertaining to any post-2019 federal or state election” until at least 2023. Those records under federal law would have been destroyed early this month. Maine Public first reported on the trend.

    “I am an aggrieved citizen of the United States and of the state of Maine, 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,” the letter reads.

    Those requests have been met with denials from the Maine Attorney General’s Office, which has told requesters that the “boilerplate” letter is insufficient to trigger a requirement for the state to preserve those records.

    “An obligation to preserve relevant records in anticipation of litigation arises only when the records custodian is on notice of a credible probability that litigation will be commenced against them. Indefinite, non-credible, or bad-faith litigation threats are insufficient to trigger any duty to preserve,” Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Bolton wrote to one requester.

    Another repetitive request the Secretary of State’s office is seeing is a request for cast vote records from the November 2020 election. A template for that has appeared on a QAnon-related message board. But cast vote records are only generated during ranked-choice voting runoffs, and the two races where it would have applied — the U.S. Senate race and the presidential race — did not get to that point. Those responses are closed by the office, according to the Secretary of State.

    It is clear these requests are stemming from national misinformation campaigns, Bellows said, because they will often include data that does not even exist in Maine, such as material  from county-administered elections. Municipalities administer elections in Maine.

    Election officials have already become used to fighting misinformation about Maine’s voting system, but Bellows said it is an ongoing concern that those efforts might spur those workers into retirement, causing even more staffing challenges. It also takes time away from preparing for the election itself or helping people who have genuine questions.

    Voter fraud is rare in Maine and the country. There have only been two recent incidents in Maine: an Orono woman was charged in 2020 with casting a ballot for her University of Maine roommate. Another UMaine student was charged with voting twice in that same election.

    The Legislature anticipated that election skeptics could cause problems in future elections. It has since passed laws tightening protections for the chain of custody of Maine’s ballots and making interfering or threatening election clerks a crime and requiring annual reports of the number of threats made.

    Hostile efforts to question Maine’s election integrity contribute to what has already become a more tense election environment, said Will Hayward, an advocacy program coordinator for the League of Women Voters Maine chapter.

    “You have to be much more prepared for any sort of eventuality these days,” he said. “It’s a shame we seem to be losing some of that community spirit.”