Deb Cox has been elections director of Lowndes county in southern Georgia for more than a decade – and has never before received so many time-consuming demands for public information.
Like many elections officials across the country, Cox has been inundated with Freedom of Information Act and open records requests from rightwing activists who believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. That’s forced her and other local officials to spend an unusual amount of time and money providing polling documents to partisan groups – an additional burden as they scramble to prepare for the fraught 2024 presidential election.
Cox, a military veteran with prior law enforcement experience and an unflappable approach to her work, is in charge of preparing and managing all processes regarding voting and elections in the mid-sized county that hugs Georgia’s border with Florida and includes the small city of Valdosta.
Responding to open records requests used to be a small part of her job – but it’s continued to grow. Before the 2020 election cycle, Cox says her office would receive about three to five FOIA requests a month. Now, she says, they’re receiving that amount each week – and she expects that number to keep rising as the election nears.
“Some [open records requests] take 20 minutes. Some take hours and hours, and multiple staff people,” Cox told the Guardian.
Across the country, election-denying rightwing activists have demanded reams of information from local election officials to try to substantiate the former president’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him – and attempt to make sure future elections don’t go the same way. That adds more stress and more work for these workers, who often have limited resources and are putting in extra hours to respond. Counties in swing states like Georgia have taken the brunt of these requests.
“In the 2020 presidential election we saw a very high-profile, long-lasting campaign of unsubstantiated allegations about election fraud and misconduct on the part of poll workers and election administrators coming from President Trump and his allies,” Zachary Peskowitz, a professor at Emory University who focuses on elections, says. “Georgia was a particular focus of claims.”
In the past, Cox said most of the open records requests she received were straightforward solicitations from groups seeking to find out the status of provisional ballots. But recent requests from rightwing groups are much more expansive and time-consuming to respond to. Those groups want to be able to essentially recreate the vote-count in an effort based on conspiracy theories to make sure no one’s rigging the election.
To try to head off some of those requests, Lowndes county publishes a PDF file online with all of its ballots. “We try and pre-empt all that by saying, ‘Here, take what you want. If there’s something else, contact us,’” Cox said says. “That’s the stance across the state. The best practice is to go ahead and post those before they ask for them.”
Cox currently spends about an hour each morning working on pulling documents and responding to the open records requests. The county’s annual budget for elections is just over $1m. Cox says roughly $2,000 of that budget is typically allocated to retaining a county attorney. This year that budget line has increased to $15,000. “That’s almost exclusively [to help with] information requests,” Cox says.
The money to retain the lawyer is worth it since Georgia’s secretary of state office doesn’t offer any statewide guidance on responding to open records requests. The US Election Assistance Commission suggests elections directors develop a clear public records policy to help address the increase in public records requests that have been reported by elections officials since 2020. The independent agency also encourages the officials to proactively provide the public with a place to access regularly requested documents, just as Lowndes county does with their ballots following an election.
Cox says she funnels all of the open records requests she receives through the county attorney to ensure she’s complying with the law but also to cut down on any potential conflicts. “The only time it gets difficult is when you have someone who is deliberately confrontational,” she says. “Their goal is not to get the information. Their goal is to either disrupt your operation or create stress and conflict.” These agitators, she says, might argue with an inexperienced elections director from a small county, but they’ll rarely do so with a county attorney.
“Other counties don’t always have that luxury,” she says. “Some counties don’t have the money to pay a county attorney on retainer. The director is left with whatever education level and experience they have, however comfortable they may or may not be dealing with confrontation.”
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