PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — The Illinois Secretary of State Office is ordering election officials to keep 2020 election documents past the standard 22-month threshold, in response to a flurry of identical Freedom of Information Act letters from election deniers threatening to bring legal action regarding the 2020 election.
Matt Dietrich, public information officer of the Illinois State Board of Elections, said the letters do not qualify as FOIA requests and represent a coordinated effort possibly timed to the 22-month window.
“They are pretty much cookie cutters requests. They’re all cut and paste… It’s more like a warning about a pending lawsuit that they’re going to bring, that the FOIA requester is planning to bring, regarding the 2020 election and they want all materials from the 2020 election to be retained, including voted ballots, which we don’t have those at the State Board of Elections,” he said.
Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman said his office received more than 10 of these letters just on Wednesday.
“We’ve all received the same type of scripted form letter that individuals are taking off websites and then emailing them to us by just adding their name and home information to it. They’re requesting that we not destroy the paper ballots from 2020 because they claim they have pending litigation,” he said.
Ackerman said his office is robust enough to handle the overflow, but not every county is so lucky.
“We have the available time and people. I’m more worried about the smaller counties that don’t have those resources available and they’re receiving just as high of a volume as we are, then that puts a risk at being able to dedicate the time necessary to the 2022 election,” he said.
FOIA requests for non-existent items
In addition to the legal threats disguised as FOIA requests, Dietrich said election officials have also been bombarded with FOIA requests for things that don’t exist, and they “cannot disprove a negative.”
“But we’ve gotten a lot of nuisance requests we’ve had, you know, like I’ve, I wouldn’t call them threats, but they haven’t exactly been civil, some of the feedback that we’ve gotten. The problem with all of this… is that we really have no way of defending against these kinds of accusations. This is what made it so dangerous when the whole voter fraud argument was brought in with no evidence,” he said.
Dietrich said some of the requestors want to see their original ballot to ensure their vote wasn’t changed, something that goes against the foundation of the American election system.
“We’ve had requests that of voters demanding, ‘I want to see my original ballot that I cast in the election. I want to see proof that I voted.’ And that goes against the very nature of anonymous voting. In the United States, once you put your ballot into that tabulator. There is nothing that ties that ballot back to you. No one can ever go dig through blank ballots and find out how you voted. That’s the nature of voting in America,” he said.
Bogging down election workers
FOIA requests are legally binding and give the recipient just five days to respond, spreading election workers as thin they prepare for the upcoming election.
“Even if it’s a frivolous request, we still have to respond within that five-day time frame. So you’re pulling staff and resources that are normally right now working on securing in the 2022 election to talk about the 2020 election,” said Ackerman.
“A lot of the local election authorities, they don’t have a luxury of time to do that right now. They are preparing to begin sending out the vote by mail ballots, they’re preparing for early voting to start on September 29th,” said Dietrich.
Ackerman encouraged people to come to ask questions in person, rather than submitting a FOIA.
“Stop in our office, ask me the questions. I’ll show you everything there is to know about election procedures and policies, and I’ll show you how our elections are secured in Tazewell County… What we need to curb is the usage of these FOIAs, which should be the tool of last resort rather than the first shovel out of the shed,” he said.
Nevertheless, the FOIA letters containing legal threats will come at a cost to taxpayers.
They issued a memo today to all county clerks and let you know that we can’t dispose of those records like we normally would have on this time frame by state. By state statute, we keep them for 22 months. That time is now up. So we are just now starting. We would be starting to get rid of them… So yeah, that’s more storage space being required, more staff time to retain those records. Retention is costly,” he said.