Editor’s Note: Louisiana halted the retention window on voting records pending new legislation. This story has been updated to reflect that change.
Mirroring a trend seen nationally, Lafayette Parish election officials have been hounded with requests for data they do not collect, questions about voting systems they do not use and threats of litigation.
Four requests filed since August, just ahead of this fall’s midterm elections, arrived just in time to cause headaches for local election officials.
“They’re doing this now in the middle of getting ready for the November election,” says Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret. “I believe they’re doing this on purpose to gum up the works.”
These requests are in line with a recent string of targeted requests potentially inspired by election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, who has urged supporters to obtain “cast vote records” from local officials. Lindell has been promoting unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud during the 2020 presidential election and was sued by a voting systems manufacturer for defamation.
Cast vote records are common documents meant to authenticate individual votes with a paper trail. But the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court does not collect the kind of data the requests are looking for, Perret says.
In simple terms, a cast vote record is a way to view all of the selections a voter made on the ballot. A paper ballot, for instance, would be considered a cast vote record. They’re common, but some jurisdictions’ voting machines create digital spreadsheets instead to record how an individual voted.
Voting machines in Louisiana do create cast vote records, according to the secretary of state’s office, but not in a way that would produce the data these requests are seeking.
The timing of the requests, reported in election offices across the country, appears linked to an upcoming deadline — 22 months from the 2020 presidential election, the retention window for voting records, according to federal election law.
Thousands of requests have been filed as that window closes, says Charles Stewart III, head of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab. “Somebody in the Lindell camp realized the 22-month window of retention in the Voting Rights Act was about to expire,” Stewart says.
In August, Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin suspended the 22-month retention window, requiring local election officials to hold those records while the Legislature takes up recommendations from a commission convened in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
Lindell himself spoke with the voting commission in June, where he was given extra time to speak by Ardoin.
While Perret’s office has received fewer inquiries than other election offices, he says the handful of requests cause problems for his office. They still take time and money to process. The threat of litigation requires the office to ready its lawyers to receive any claims.
“We got to notify the attorney, notify our insurance carrier,” Perret says. “All of this costs money.”
It’s unclear whether those filing the requests are directly linked to any election conspiracy group. But the language in their requests is similar to the wording Lindell has used and that has shown up in requests across the country. The Current reached out to several requesters but only one responded, confirming the request was filed on a friend’s behalf.
“Dear [Mr] :Perret [sic]
I am an aggrieved citizen of the United States and of the state of Louisiana, and I am contemplating filing a lawsuit against the relevant parties pertaining to the continuing concerns I have regarding the integrity of all elections thetPerrat [sic] took place after December 31, 2019.”
Lindell and others have stressed their efforts are about ensuring election “integrity” and restoring faith in voting processes. Perret, like many other election officials, doesn’t see it that way.
“It has nothing to do with government transparency,” Perret says. “We already have [transparency]. Whenever we conduct elections, it is all done in public meetings that the public is invited to.
“I am open to any evidence that shows corruption in elections.”
The hunt for cast vote records started in Maricopa County, Ariz., widely considered ground-zero for many election conspiracies post-2020 election, Stewart says. A partisan review of election records there, funded by Trump-affiliated groups, failed to turn up alleged vote rigging.
Stewart believes cast vote records are useful for post-election audits but is unsure what Lindell wants with the data. For most people, the data would be indecipherable. One potential goal is to track down split-ticket voters as evidence of fraud.
“There were large numbers of voters who voted Republican all the way down the ballot except they had left the president off the ballot or [voted] for Joe Biden,” Stewart says. “The Mike Lindells of the world don’t understand what they are getting and don’t know why they want this material and don’t know what they’ll do if they get it.”
The flood of requests has mostly happened in parts of the U.S. that voted for Donald Trump, according to Stewart.
“It is county clerks in very Republican parts of the country getting these requests and most likely to get threatening communications,” Stewart says. “There are just more people listening to Mike Lindell in those parts of the country.”
Stewart believes governments should be transparent and provide data when asked, but he understands that requests can be taxing on officials. He suggests modernizing systems that allow voters and concerned citizens to gather data on their own versus sending public records requests.
“The unfortunate thing is there are good reasons for making this available,” Stewart says. “The clerks in Louisiana are put in a difficult situation because by resisting it looks like they are trying to hide something.”
The pile-on can be demoralizing for public servants doing a “thankless” job, Stewart says. Distracting clerks and their staff with “chaos swirling around” can disrupt an important and time-consuming job.
Still, Stewart and Perret don’t view this as a sign of democracy in peril, but rather that the movement demonstrates even fringe conspiracies can have a real-world impact on election systems.
“This is really different because this is nationwide,” Stewart says. “This has [the] potential to have legs going into the 2022 and 2024 ballot.”
Says Perret, “That reminds me of the minister of propaganda for the Germans, Joseph Goebbels, who said, ‘If you tell a lie long enough people will believe it.’”