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Ohio election boards inundated with 2020 election records requests before they're destroyed

Brian Sleeth, the director of elections in Warren County, looking through a folder containing printouts of one of the public records requests he’s received for huge numbers of documents from the 2020 election.
Karen Kasler
Ohio Public Radio
Brian Sleeth, the director of elections in Warren County, looking through a folder containing printouts of one of the public records requests he’s received for huge numbers of documents from the 2020 election.

With just eight weeks till the November vote, boards of elections in all 88 Ohio counties report getting a small number of requests for records from the 2020 vote, just as they were about to be destroyed.

The requests appear to be identical, and they’re asking for a huge haul of documents, such as all ballots and voter ID envelopes. There’s a source that seems to be generating the idea.

As of September 3, it’s been 22 months since the 2020 vote, and documents and records related to that federal election are set to be destroyed. But at the Warren County Board of Elections in southwest Ohio, that’s not happening.

Warren County Board of Elections Director Brian Sleeth said he got a handful of identical and huge requests for those documents, starting with 180,000 ballots from the election that the requesters have asked to review.

But that’s not the only type of request the Warren County Board of Elections received, he said. The people making the requests have asked to see the paper tape from the voting machines.

“They've asked for register - it's like a cash register tape, the results tapes out of our voting machines for that election,” Sleeth said. “It's about 70 to 80 foot long, and that's just one piece of paper.”

Finally, Warren County received requests for copies of envelopes from the early voting period which will take additional to fulfill.

“They've requested copies of voters ID envelopes from early voting and stuff like that. So then we're stepping into redacting records,” Sleeth said.

Sleeth only got only about seven requests. But it could take days to copy all the documents, including possibly bringing in an outside vendor to assemble it all, meaning the costs for each request could go into the thousands.

Former President Trump won Ohio by more than 475,000 votes. But boards of elections in all 88 counties have gotten these requests. And it’s not just happening in Ohio. Hundreds of requests for thousands of public records from the 2020 election have flooded into boards of elections in battleground states such as Arizona, Nevada and North Carolina.

This is apparently an effort practiced by right-wing activists and election deniers.

“It's an issue of you writing a letter to your Board of Elections and requesting it. Okay? So when I put this on our website, I'll link to the instructions on how to do that,” said Tom Zawistowski on his weekly podcast, We the People Convention News & Opinion, recently.

The Portage County far-right activist and podcaster said in an email that he and other activists are following the instructions of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, an ally of former President Trump who’s been leading efforts to ban voting machines he falsely claims contributed to massive fraud in the 2020 election, though there’s never been evidence of that in audits or in court cases.

“Last Saturday, Mike Lindell had this big election integrity stream that went all day long,” Zawistowski said on that same podcast.

Trying to fulfill these huge requests is putting a strain on boards of elections.

But Ned Foley, the director of election law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said there could be a benefit to these requests.

“Is it really necessary to look at these records for the reasons that they want to? Probably not,” Foley said. “But denying access to it probably would increase distrust, and maybe giving access to it would ameliorate to some degree the concern about distrust.”

That won’t happen, said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida and the head of the United States Election Project, a website that tracks data and information about voting systems across the country.

McDonald said these requesters are using a loophole in public records law to flood elections officials with requests.

“They're overloading the capacity for the local election to respond to those, and it's gumming up the ability for election officials to efficiently run their elections,” he said.

McDonald also said he doesn’t see an end to this situation.

“There is just one solution. It's a very easy solution, but it's not going to happen,” McDonald said. “And that's for Donald Trump to admit that he lost the election fair and square.”

With public records requests outstanding, the records can’t be destroyed, which is difficult for smaller counties with less room to store records. And it’s a challenge for elections workers who are getting ready for this fall’s election, with early voting starting October 12.

Copyright 2022 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.