The Loudoun County Office of Elections has been slammed with a record number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about the equipment, process and guides used to certify the 2020 general election outcomes since Aug. 1 mostly from one individual, according to a review of those requests by Loudoun Times-Mirror.
While neighboring jurisdictions in Fairfax, Prince William and Fauquier counties also have seen an increase in similar requests, interviews and reviews reveal those figures do not compare with those received by Loudoun. This is a pattern that the Virginia State Board of Elections also observed.
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act guarantees “citizens of the Commonwealth and representatives of the media access to public records held by public bodies, public officials, and public employees,” according to a Loudoun County webpage regarding the law. The law defines public records as “any writing or recording — regardless of whether it is a paper record, an electronic file, an audio or video recording, or any other format — that is prepared or owned by, or in the possession of, a public body or its officers, employees, or agents in the transaction of public business.”
Any FOIA request submitted in the commonwealth requires a response within five days. After five days, the requesting jurisdiction can either respond with the information or ask for more time (seven days under Virginia law) to respond.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump, including some members of the Republican Party, have refused to acknowledge that the current President Joe Biden won the 2020 general election fairly. This belief has been buttressed by Trump’s repeated claims since Biden was declared and certified to be the winner that the election was stolen owing to manipulation of computerized voting machines. Now they are out to prove it with the whole-hearted support of MyPillow founder Mike Lindell whose “Moment of Truth” summit in late August urged the voting public to reject machines/computers used for voting, saying they are being manipulated and to return to traditional in-person ballots. According to a recent report by the Washington Post, states around the country have seen similar spikes in FOIA requests, largely from Trump-aligned voters.
Between Aug. 1 and Sept. 13, Loudoun County, which has a population in excess of 420,000, has received 187 FOIA requests related to the certification of voting equipment and poll books pertaining to the 2020 general election, more than seven times than the 25 requests it has received between 2018 and August 2022, County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said in an interview.
“I do believe this is an abnormally high number of requests and it is a lot of work to respond to them,” Hemstreet said, adding that the information is open to the public, and “to the extent it is available we are providing it to those requesting it.”
Hemstreet and other county election officials are concerned because they have had to reassign staff to handle the sizeable volume of requests just as they prepare to start early voting for November elections on Sept. 23.
In comparison to Loudoun, Fairfax County, where more than 1.14 million people reside, received 62 such requests, while the much smaller Fauquier County has received 24 requests since May of 2021. Prince William County Office of Elections did not share the exact number of such requests it has received this year, but noted that such requests are “ten times or more what it received in past years” with the 2020 general election accounting for a high proportion.
At the state level, the Virginia Department of Elections also is observing a similar trend. Between January and September 2022, it received 50 requests explicitly on the 2020 General Election, up from 35 it received a year earlier during the same timeframe. Between September and December 2021, the state received an additional seven requests, bringing the total to 42.
Fauquier County General Registrar Alex Ables in an email said these requests are “highly unusual compared to past years when you would have one or two FOIA requests, period.”
Prince William County General Registrar Eric Olsen said it receives such requests almost every day, but added that “the number of requests the Office of Elections receives is approximately 10 times or more what it received in past years.”
Elaborating, Olsen said the requests cover all elections in the last two years, “but certainly the 2020 General Election accounts for a high proportion.”
“The Office of Elections has made significant improvements to increase the transparency of an already-open process, but the sheer volume of requests impedes daily operations,” Olsen said, adding that Prince William Office of Elections must respond within prescribed timeframes “and thus — at times — has to legally prioritize its time for citizens outside the county over our own voters.”
A review of the FOIA request data at the Loudoun County’s Office of Elections showed that it received a single request in 2018, three in 2019, seven each in 2020 and 2021, and eight between January and August of this year. That figure skyrocketed to 187 though between Aug. 1 and Sept. 13 of this year with most of the requests coming from one resident: Christopher Rohland, who made national television two years ago when he appeared before a Loudoun County Board meeting to oppose a proposed ordinance to ban guns in public buildings and parks, wearing a veil in lieu of a mask and a red Trump t-shirt proclaiming “America is Great.”
Loudoun General Registrar Judy Brown confirmed that no challenges have been filed to date on votes cast in the 2020 elections, but the county’s electoral machines, tallying process, equipment and guides have caught the attention of Rohland in the last month and half.
For instance, Rohland on Aug. 1 asked for “all records” related to the memory or USB drives of Electronic Poll Book (EPB) systems that were supplied to localities. These included “wiping standards used, recorded, observed, witnessed, certified, and dates and times associated with each memory or USB drive used in 2016, 2019, 2020, and 2021 elections in Loudoun County VA.” He also asked for all applicable Virginia and county information security standards and guidelines followed in these years, along with any changes made to applicable policies and guidelines made at the both the state and local level.
Rohland, however, did not respond to email requests from Loudoun Times-Mirror to explain whether he was gathering all this information to mount a challenge against the county and why he was seeking this information. The Loudoun County Republican Committee (LCRC) refused to divulge whether Rohland is a member, saying the information is not open to the public, while defending his right to request the publicly available information.
Another resident, Karen Mineo, asked for all email records between the Office of Elections and current Democratic and Republican elected officials in the county including Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk.
Ables said Fauquier County did not receive any requests from state or local GOP groups. He said the requests appeared to be coming from some outside groups who are persuading individual residents to submit requests using boilerplate language. For instance, both he and Loudoun’s Brown noted several FOIA requests contained the word, “insert jurisdiction here.”
The LCRC did not submit a FOIA request during August and September, but Communications Chair John Smith said it did submit half a dozen requests in the last year or so. These ranged from asking about the “bipartisan security of thumb drives associated with election to equipment” to “what internet connections do our poll books, election laptops, hi-speed scanner, and election machines have.” The requests also asked for guidance for managing permanent absentee voter ballots.
Troubled by the volume of requests facing the Office of Elections, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall, D-at large, called on former and current Republican and Democrat supervisors to criticize what she called “harassment of staff.” Randall said she was outraged over the unprecedented requests because they imply that somehow the county did not carry out its duties with integrity. She said she is troubled because of the burden it is imposing on the county staff that is ill-equipped to handle these requests and the taxpayers who have to pay for the staff’s time.
In her tweets, Randall said the FOIAs are trying to prove the “big lie,” the term used by Trump to refer to his loss in the 2020 elections.
Randall’s comments, however, drew the ire of LCRC, which said Randall was trying to stifle the voice of the residents.
“I think people like Phyllis Randall are trying to stifle people from asking questions,” which is a form of intimidation, said LCRC’s Smith, adding that people from all sides of the political spectrum (Democrat, independent and Republican) are losing confidence in election processes especially as they have increasingly become more digital, electronic, and wireless.
“We are trying to understand the election process, the electronic machines, the digital counting. We really want to understand what is going on,” said Smith so that people of Loudoun can increase their confidence in the election process, which they are questioning.
However, Prince William’s Olsen noted that if individuals want a more meaningful experience to see that the system works “they are encouraged to become an election officer to learn and see the entire process.”