Law would redirect surging public requests for election records

The requests, which jumped after the 2020 elections, would go to the state level instead of local auditors

By: - May 9, 2023 3:00 am
Three voters are seen filling out ballots in Vancouver, Washington, during the 2020 election.

Voters fill out their ballots on November 3, 2020 in Vancouver, Washington. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Following the 2020 elections, county auditors around the state saw public requests for election records spike, a trend driven at least in part by individuals and groups pushing disproven claims of widespread fraud at the polls.

Auditors say fulfilling the requests posed a time-consuming lift for their thinly staffed offices. In the meantime, they’ve also been bracing for another wave of requests around the 2024 election cycle. But a bill that passed the Legislature this year could relieve some of this pressure on the auditors, shifting many of these requests from their local offices to the state level.

The legislation aims to streamline the request process for election records, diverting requests away from the auditors and toward the Secretary of State’s office. It also specifically exempts reports of how a person voted, known as cast vote records, from public disclosure. Supporters say the new process will save auditors time and give more consistent responses to requesters. Opponents say it will hurt transparency. 

“It saves a lot of time on the part of the state and the counties,” Whatcom County Auditor Diana Bradrick said of the new legislation.

The slew of requests was one facet of a post-2020 campaign to prove there is widespread fraud and irregularities in Washington’s elections. Last year, groups such as the Washington Election Integrity Coalition United filed a number of lawsuits across the state claiming ballots were manipulated. At the same time, coordinated records requests, often using form letters shared online, began hitting county auditors. 

In 2019, county auditors across the state received about 400 requests, Lori Larsen, with the Washington State Association of County Auditors, told a House committee earlier this year. Last year, they received more than 1,300. 

The number of requests varies widely by county. For example, Spokane County received five records requests per year in 2019 and 2020. Last year, the county received 75. Whatcom County received 18 records requests since November, compared to three during all of 2019. Snohomish County received eight requests in 2019, compared to 75 last year. 

The Secretary of State’s office has also seen an influx, according to spokesperson Derrick Nunnally. 

Since last April, the office received 408 requests. Prior to the 2020 election, they were averaging around 200 requests or less each year, and they were not as complicated as many of the requests they’re getting now, Nunnally wrote in an email. 

Requests did slow following last year’s general election, said Whatcom County’s Bradrick, who has been tracking requests and coordinating auditors’ responses statewide since the 2020 election. 

But Bradrick added that she would not be surprised if requests begin to surge again around the 2023 general election and the 2024 presidential election. “I think it’s the low before the storm,” she said.

In making the case for the legislation, officials point out that the Secretary of State’s office is the primary owner of the statewide voter database and that county auditors often have to ask the office for access to certain records anyway. 

“It’s just much more efficient and complete if the Secretary of State completes those public records requests,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said. “It’ll actually be faster and cleaner for the requester.”

Many of the requests in recent years have been submitted multiple times to multiple counties, Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell said. Having all of the requests go to the Secretary of State, he added, will provide a centralized system. 

“It shouldn’t hamper anybody’s ability to get the data that they’re interested in, if it’s disclosable,” Fell said. 

Some of the requested items that are disclosable include ballot logs and dropbox pickup schedules. Documents like ballot images and envelopes, on the other hand, are not.

The cast vote records show how a person voted on each initiative or race on a ballot, but list a ballot number, as opposed to a voter’s name.

Bradrick said auditors have considered the cast vote records to be undisclosable under state law. In their responses to requesters, auditors cite a 2017 state Supreme Court decision in White v. Clark County that said images of ballots are exempt from public disclosure. 

The new legislation seeks to settle questions about whether the cast vote records are public, creating an exemption for them under the state’s Public Records Act. 

In committee hearings, opponents of the bill said it would take away their access to information about elections. 

“There must be a mechanism to ask questions,” Tamborine Borrelli, of the Washington Election Integrity Coalition United, told the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Relations. 

The bill passed 43-4 in the Senate. In the House, it passed 58-40, on a party-line vote. It has yet to receive Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature.

A number of Republicans spoke out against the bill, raising concerns that it would limit transparency.

Rep. Leonard Christian, R-Spokane Valley, said on the floor that the bill could result in more distrust in the elections system.

“I’m more for open elections with more people being involved,” he said.

Elections officials, on the other hand, say there are other ways for people to get the information they’re seeking. 

Dalton, the Spokane County auditor, said people can come and observe election processes and ask questions of auditors, but that even then, some still doubt the integrity of elections. 

Bradrick, in Whatcom County, said auditors do release a lot of information about elections, but cannot let someone see how a person voted. “We want to be transparent, but you have to balance that against the constitutional right of a voter to have a secret ballot,” she said.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.