For the record(s): Conspiracy theorists are swarming election offices with copy-and-paste information requests

Few seem to even understand exactly what it is they’re asking for.

For the record(s): Conspiracy theorists are swarming election offices with copy-and-paste information requests
A Dominion ImageCast Precinct Count optical ballot scanner. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Edited by Sam Thielman

ACTIVISTS AND MEDIA FIGURES who have spent the last two years of their lives touring the country and telling crowds that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump are deploying their followers to overwhelm election offices with requests for records and threats of lawsuits (or worse). It’s the latest stratagem in an increasingly disruptive campaign to effectively undermine the nation’s election infrastructure.

The surge of requests from this powerful faction of the pro-Trump movement began at scale after the Springfield, Missouri “Moment of Truth Summit” in late August, hosted by prolific conspiracy theorist and pillow salesman Mike Lindell. At that conference, Lindell and other speakers urged attendees and online viewers to request cast-vote record data (often referred to as “CVR data” or “CVRs”) from election officials, promising that such data will reveal evidence that 2020 elections were, in fact, illegitimate.

Rachel Leingang wrote a great explainer of CVR data (and the current mania among conservatives for getting it) for VoteBeat. Leingang cites experts who doubt that Lindell or his followers will be able to use the information they’re requesting to support their case. CVR data is formatted for the equipment used to count votes, and some places (like Connecticut) use equipment that doesn’t produce that data at all. The files are complicated, making them difficult to understand, and only contain information about scanned ballots. And because each state in the US has its own laws and rules around elections, some offices aren’t clear on whether they can give over CVR data. The information is not worthless, but like any data set, it’s most useful to people who understand it well enough to ask the right questions of it.

Offices around the country have been swarmed with requests, sometimes taking the form of copy-and-paste templates distributed by election denialist influencers. The torrent of inquiries has been particularly disruptive to smaller offices, many of which don’t have the staff necessary to  answer hundreds of Freedom of Information requests at a time while preparing to administer November’s midterm elections. One small-town election official told The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill, “The more time I spend responding to requests for documents that don’t exist, sent by strangers on the internet, the less time I have to spend addressing the needs of my neighbors.”

But it’s not just CVR data that election denialists are after. Terpsichore Maras-Lindeman, a QAnon influencer known as “ToreSays” online, has directed her quasi-religious followers to ask offices for information about election administrators’ contacts with the Department of Homeland Security, which she says creates the appearance of open elections and then secretly rigs them to produce federally decided results. Lindell and his posse (including very serious people like Jeff “The Lone Racoon” O’Donnell and “Lady Draza,” who mostly operate on Telegram) have given followers a template to submit information requests along the lines of the Freedom of Information Act that seek communication records that mention CVRs and the pillow peddler, himself. Others have created templates for their followers that threaten lawsuits against offices and demand the preservation of records.

The Washington Post listed other requests these offices have received in its article about the phenomenon:

In Wisconsin, one recent request asks for 34 different types of documents. In  North Carolina, hundreds of requests came in at state and local offices on one day alone. In Kentucky, officials don’t recognize the technical-sounding documents they’re being asked to produce—and when they seek clarification, the requesters say they don’t know, either.

Many election officials are committed, by law or conviction, to transparency. Elections are serious business, and openness about how they are conducted is a crucial component of public trust. There is nothing inherently wrong about asking for this information, but siccing hundreds of people on small offices to ask for documents they don’t understand is something else entirely.

The hivemind asking for this information barely understands what they’re asking for, let alone what they are receiving when requests are honored. The exercise has the effect of pouring sand into an engine, overwhelming and distracting election officials who are trying their best to fulfill their roles in the name of public service. Those officials aren’t exactly getting rich, and the deluge of conspiracy theories, requests, and threats aimed at them are driving some out of their positions, opening up lanes for partisan ideologues to enter a system meant to be neutral to election outcomes. While it’s much easier to conceive of threats to elections in physically violent terms, Lindell, Maras-Lindeman, and their allies have become an urgent danger to those systems simply by thinking in reverse.

Figures like Lindell and Maras-Lindeman work a lucrative circuit that proclaims election-related scandals before they possess facts, not after. They shout their allegations first and hunt for evidence later. Unembarrassed by years of public, extravagant failure, they have become more and more extreme. They are driven by a dysmorphia that casts themselves as sleuths on the verge of saving the nation, rather than religious followers of a church prophesying a revelation that always lurks around the corner, just out of reach. As the donkey in the cartoon marches forward toward the carrot dangled in front of his face, so too do election denialists follow false prophets on a winding road to nowhere. Their faith comes at a high cost, to them and to the rest of us.

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