Ongoing demand for election documents keep county election officials trapped in 2020
By Tammy Joiner, Atlanta Civic Circle
While all political eyes and efforts are focused on the upcoming 2022 midterms, Douglas County elections supervisor Milton Kidd and his staff are trapped in 2020.
Every week for the last year, the Douglas elections office has been fielding at least three or four requests, mostly from out-of-town individuals or groups, looking “for every piece of documentation pertaining to the 2020 presidential election,” Kidd told Atlanta Civic Circle.
“The 2020 election has not ended for us,” Kidd said. “We’re still being bombarded with open records requests [and] requests for recounts.”
Kidd has also received threats and accusations from people who “seemed to feel that we did something nefarious to certain candidates, he said, adding that he now takes safety precautions. “I purposely don’t walk into the front door of the building in which I work,” he said.
His Fayette County counterpart, Brian Hill, also is still fielding requests for 2020 election documents. “Most of it is frivolous. A lot of it’s tedious stuff,” the Fayette director of elections and voter registration told Atlanta Civic Circle, adding that it takes time away from the elections office staff’s daily work.
“It’s not going away by a long shot,” Hill added. “The document dives are going to pick back up after the first of the year, because of the midterms.”
The continued fixation with the 2020 presidential election has made it the most scrutinized in recent memory, political observers say.
“It’s unprecedented. I don’t think it’s ever happened before. I don’t think this kind of prolonged effort to re-fight the battle existed in Florida in 2000,” Charles Bullock, university professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
Bullock was referring to the 2000 presidential election, which hinged on a block of Florida ballots with incomplete punch holes, known as chads. The Supreme Court declared Republican George W. Bush the winner over Democrat Al Gore, and Gore did not dispute the decision. But in Georgia, former President Donald Trump continues to “rehash how he thinks the election system was rigged,” Bullock said.
“High-profile people won’t let this die,” added Bullock, who has tracked Georgia politics for over 50 years. “That’s what continues to fuel the idea that, somehow, there’s something hidden away there–and that a thorough inspection might somehow uncover an alleged crime.”
The problem is not unique to Georgia.
Dealing with requested document dives was a major concern at a recent national gathering of state elected officials, said Tammy Patrick, the senior advisor to Democracy Fund’s political team. The private foundation was created by billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
“Election officials all across the country are being inundated with FOIA requests,” Patrick told Atlanta Civic Circle, referring to open records requests. “I have spoken to probably at least half of the states, and they’ve all told me this is occurring.”
The requests often are an “orchestrated effort” to overwhelm local election offices, she said.
“It’s a real challenge,” Patrick said. “On one hand, you want to be transparent. You want to ensure that documents are available for the public to review–but it’s not as easy as simply pressing a button.”
“There are all sorts of redactions that have to occur, depending on what the records are,” she explained. “It’s a very time-consuming process. You have to expend resources in your elections office satisfying these FOIA requests for an election that is now over a year old.”
Patrick called the document-dive ploy “an old political tactic,” but at this moment, she said, “We’re seeing it used in a way that is just further eroding confidence in our election system.”
These document requests come at a time when local election offices are already swamped.
In Georgia, presidential ballots have been recounted three times, and numerous 2020 lawsuits challenging the election have been dismissed, Bullock said, yet the issue stubbornly persists.
“As long as the former president continues to argue that the election was stolen from him, and is given the deference that so many Republicans give him in believing what he says… this won’t go away,” he said.
In Georgia, the continuing fixation has created ongoing headaches–and worse– for elections officials, staff and judges in:
- Time, manpower and money. Georgia’s 159 county elections offices are still fielding individual 2020 document requests after already performing three mandatory massive recounts. A hand-count audit mandated by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and then an additional recount request by Trump cost 10 metro Atlanta counties over $1 million, Atlanta Civic Circle has found.
- Legal challenges. Bullock said he’s lost count of how many lawsuits have been filed and dismissed over the 2020 elections. Former Sen. David Perdue just filed another one Dec. 9 – three days after announcing he’s mounting a Republican primary challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp for the governor’s race. Perdue, whom Trump is backing, seeks to inspect 2020 absentee ballots in Fulton County–the state’s most populous county and a focus for the lawsuits–even though they’ve already been recounted by hand.
“I find that completely egregious. He knows better,” Olivia Troye, the director of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “He knows that this election was not stolen, yet he has made the calculated decision to, once again, double down on this lie.” Perdue’s new lawsuit raises the same claims over Fulton absentee ballots that a Henry County judge dismissed in October in a separate lawsuit.
- Verbal and physical threats: A report from the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three election officials nationally reported feeling unsafe–and one in six reported being threatened due to their job during the 2020 election. Georgia’s election officials have been besieged by death threats, to the point that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger stopped his grandchildren from visiting his home. A Kentucky woman was arrested in October for allegedly making terroristic threats to the Henry County judge who dismissed the Fulton absentee ballot lawsuit.
Gabriel Sterling, the COO for the Secretary of State’s office, and Fulton County’s departing elections director, Rick Barron, have also experienced threats. Barron told Vice he received more than 100 profanity-laced, threatening voicemails shortly after last year’s election. Some state officials and out-of-state Republican groups that oppose Trump are fighting back.
Raffensperger, who rebuffed Trump’s request that he “find” additional ballots to turn the election in his favor, wrote detailed letters early last January to Congress members and former Vice President Pence that refuted the election fraud allegations point by point. The Secretary of State’s office has even created a Secure the Vote website to address every debunked allegation and explain the state’s elections process.
Raffensperger has also spoken to civic groups statewide about the issue, and he is currently conducting Town Hall meetings by phone in each Georgia congressional district.
“Georgia’s election system has been updated with new legislation with SB 202 that we passed earlier this year. It’s designed to strengthen the integrity and confidence in our elections,” Raffensperger told listeners from District 13 in metro Atlanta during a 30-minute phone meeting Tuesday.
“I’d like to talk with you for a few minutes to address some of the confusion that Georgians have shared with me and help reassure you that Georgia’s elections are secure,” he added.
Listeners asked about election misinformation they’d heard and the new election reform law. Raffensperger refuted claims of vote tampering at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, a major 2020 poll site. (Two Fulton County election workers are suing a right-wing website, saying it perpetuated false claims that they were involved in vote-rigging at the arena.)
In another attempt to combat misinformation, a GOP nonprofit spent a quarter of a million dollars this fall to persuade lawmakers in eight states – including Georgia – to reject what it deemed frivolous audits.
The Republican Accountability Project, a 501(c)4, installed dozens of billboards through its Republicans for Voting Rights initiative that shows a forlorn former president with the message “Trump Lost. No more ‘audits’.” The group chose high-profile spots in major markets, including Atlanta, in states where there are still efforts challenging the election.
“These sham [calls for] audits are a waste of time and money. The 2020 election was secure and fair,” Republicans for Voting Rights’ director, Amanda Carpenter, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Atlanta Civic Circle.