In the two years since members of the Republican Party attempted to prevent a peaceful transfer of power, election deniers across the country have sought to gain access to anonymized voted ballots in a misguided effort to conduct citizen-led election audits.
Specifically, Republicans are seeking to publicize cast vote records (CVRs), an electronic record of a voter’s selections on a ballot without any identifying information about the voter. Typically, a CVR is a spreadsheet with rows of data and depending on the size of the municipality, the file can be massive. Election results are calculated by tabulating the CVRs and audits can be conducted by comparing CVRs against paper records of voters’ selections. The exact appearance of a CVR as well as what is included — like a ballot image — and what is anonymized varies by state. Access to CVRs, and critically, whether or not they exist also varies by state.
In the first days of 2021, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for emergency audits of election results in battleground states won by President Joe Biden, citing unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and the doubt sowed into voters by the Republican Party. These calls culminated in the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6 and the objection of some states’ electoral vote counts. However, attempts to cast further doubt on the 2020 presidential election continued well past that fateful day and in August 2022, My Pillow CEO and avid election denier Mike Lindell urged attendees of a conference to request access to 2020 vote records in states across the country.
All of this has resulted in counties experiencing an influx of records requests that experts have said aren’t useful in the way that Lindell and others suggested. What the increase of misguided requests does accomplish, however, is further straining underfunded election officials, so much so that one clerk described it as a “denial of service” attack as the overflow of requests means that clerks are taken away from their other responsibilities.
The Republican Party is fighting to expand the public’s access to voted ballots in courtrooms across the country.
Despite the failure of over 60 lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign and its allies in the days and weeks following Nov. 8, 2020 — which confirmed the baselessness of accusations — access to the 2020 election results continued to be requested.
In Michigan, Matthew DePerno, a known election denier and failed attorney general candidate, filed a lawsuit in late November 2020 alleging the election results were fraudulent due to a county’s use of Dominion tabulators and voting machines and asserting that he had the right to conduct an “independent and non-partisan [forensic] audit to determine the accuracy and integrity” of the results.
In May 2021, the trial court dismissed DePerno’s claims as moot and concluded that there is “no right” under Michigan law for the audit that the lawsuit sought. He appealed the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court, which once again denied his requested relief and dismissed the lawsuit on Dec. 9, 2022. In a separate case, DePerno is facing criminal charges for illegally accessing and tampering with voting machines after the 2020 election.
In Minnesota, two years after the 2020 election, a nonprofit founded by Matt Benda, an attorney and a failed Republican congressional candidate, filed a lawsuit challenging Rice County’s use of an “Electronic Voting System.” The plaintiffs — including Benda’s group and a Minnesota voter — argued that they requested a full “cast vote record” from Rice County, but this request was “not fully or completely responded to.” In January 2023, the case was dismissed as it lacked a sufficient legal claim.
The preoccupation with requesting CVRs and other election records has spilled beyond 2020.
Last November, Kari Lake’s failed Arizona gubernatorial campaign filed a lawsuit against Maricopa County, Arizona seeking to compel the production of records relating to the midterm elections held on Nov. 8, 2022.
As a part of a multi-lawsuit effort to overturn the results of the election, Lake alleged that since Maricopa County officials “were unable or unwilling to conduct a reconciliation of voter check ins against ballots cast of each polling center on election night in accordance with Arizona law and have now unlawfully refused to produce public records…regarding how they administered the election,” her campaign could not “determine that every lawful [Election Day] vote will be properly counted.”
Lake’s lawsuit was dismissed in January of this year after the records request was satisfied.
Outside the courtroom, Republican legislators are seeking access to cast vote records to varying degrees of success.
In Arizona, which has become a hotbed for election conspiracies, Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) has vetoed nearly 30 election bills this year. This slew of vetoes includes a bill that would have made available the electronic record of anonymized voted ballots for each race, meaning individuals could request access to the ballots for viewing purposes.
In Montana, legislation that would have required cast vote records in all federal elections died in the legislative process. Critically, this bill would not have made the CVRs accessible via public record request, which is typically the goal of these bills.
In June, Texas enacted a bill that requires the general custodian of election records to make available to the public the images of voted ballots and cast vote records after the completion of the official counting of ballots, known as a canvass, is completed. The general custodian varies by the type of election. The requirement went into effect on Sept. 1.
A North Carolina bill, which would require all county boards of elections to ensure electronic voting systems create cast vote records and also make those public record, has passed the House and is making its way through the Senate. It remains to be seen if the bill will be enacted ahead of the 2024 elections.
The attention being paid to the accessibility of cast vote records is a part of the growing election vigilantism trend amongst Republicans.
Election audits are governed by state law and additional federal constraints are enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice. As attested by federal agencies, investigations and failed lawsuits, “the November 3rd  election was the most secure in American history… There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
If Republicans are serious about well-run elections their focus should be increasing funding and support for election officials, who are subjected to increasing levels of scrutiny with every election cycle. Creating additional tasks, like requesting cast vote records, without additional support is counterproductive at best and, at its worst, harmful to voters.