Arizona election activists are seeking the 'cast vote record' from 2020 — Here’s what it is and why they want it

Elections departments across the country are getting tons of near-identical requests for an obscure document generated by ballot-counting machines, spurred by people who insist this record could help detect fraudulent voting patterns that show former President Donald Trump actually won the 2020 presidential election. It is the latest example of the endless, fruitless quest for a smoking gun that has so far yielded no proof of wrongdoing affecting the election results.

But the document, called a “cast vote record,” can’t be used to detect these kinds of patterns, nor is it particularly useful to people who aren’t researchers or auditors, experts say. And the sheer number of requests is overwhelming elections offices as they prepare for this year’s general election.

“The remarkable thing is that there’s really a lot less here than it might seem in both directions. It’s way less ominous than it could be, but it’s also way less useful,” said Max Hailperin, a retired computer science professor who has researched election technology.

Put simply, a cast vote record is the electronic representation of how voters voted. These lines of data appear in a spreadsheet full of zeros and ones to indicate the votes an anonymous ballot contained.

Whether the resulting records can be made public varies around the country, and the exact definition and appearance of what’s included in a cast vote record also varies, depending on the jurisdiction and the voting technology it uses.

But requesters, spurred on by recent instructions from people known for promoting baseless theories about election fraud, are bombarding elections offices with cut-and-paste requests for them.

My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, known for promoting baseless theories of election fraud, together with a man named Jeff O’Donnell, who uses the moniker “The Lone Raccoon” online, and another far-right internet personality named Lady Draza, are urging people to file the requests and collect the records in a repository for eventual analysis. They also ask requesters to report back if officials deny their requests, to generate a list of potential lawsuits.

At an event in late August, Lindell touted the need for listeners to request cast vote records, and counties immediately saw a spate of requests. In Colorado, for instance, counties saw dozens of requests after the summit, with one local official comparing the identical requests to a “denial of service” attack that prevents them from doing their jobs, according to Colorado Newsline.

In Arizona’s Maricopa County, the elections department has seen a massive influx of requests for the records. In 2021, 11 requests came in for the cast vote record, elections department spokeswoman Megan Gilbertson said. In 2022, up through Aug. 25, the county has gotten more than 90, with more coming in every day.

Experts say the records can’t be used in the way Lindell and others are suggesting they can.

“I suspect many of the people that are requesting them don’t know what any of it is. They’re just the mules, to borrow that term,” Hailperin said.

What’s a cast vote record?

Depending on how large the county or town is, the files can be massive. A layperson, using the files alone, would have little understanding of what they’re looking at or how it could be used.

The cast vote record can be tallied to get an unofficial, election night result, but not the final, canvassed vote. The canvassed vote, considered the official results, includes ballots that were provisional or needed adjudication.

Sometimes, ballot images are included as part of the cast vote record. The ballot images can be matched to a given line of data in a cast vote record spreadsheet. That can help an auditor see how a ballot was adjudicated if there were questions about whether a person’s intent was to vote one way or another.

The records can be a useful tool for researchers and auditors. They can find larger trends, like how many people split their ticket, how precincts moved toward a given party over time, or how the method of voting (mail vs. in person) change. When combined with ballot images, the cast vote record can provide a way to audit an election, though the paper ballots would be a better tool.

“The real gold standard for auditing would be to actually go back to the paper ballot itself and not just a digital image of it. But certainly, you get a little bit of extra confidence if you’re looking at the image and cast vote record,” Hailperin said.

You can’t find your own name, or any voter names, in these records. Ballots are by law private, meaning voters’ names are not on them.

Some who are seeking these records believe they will be able to find fraud based on the sequence in which ballots were scanned, Hailperin said. For example, they would flag whether a large number of consecutive ballots came in for one candidate. But, in the case of ballots cast by mail, the order in which ballots are scanned doesn’t always correlate with when the ballots arrived. And citing ballot sequences as proof of fraud is a flawed premise: Different people, with different political affiliations, tend to vote using different methods because of their trust in early voting or other factors.

“They’re not going to tell the story that you want them to tell. If the story you want to tell is that, clearly, this was fraudulent, you’re not gonna get that,” said Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University who studies election security.

Getting a cast vote record can be easy or impossible

There’s no uniform law around the country that dictates whether cast vote records and corresponding ballot images are public records.

Some jurisdictions make the records readily available online, alongside ballot images, that allow anyone to check the work of an election. Some respond to these records requests with a cast vote record, but won’t release ballot images. Others won’t release either. Others have never received requests for these records until now, so they’re trying to understand how to respond. And still others don’t have a cast vote record because of the technology they use.

Elections departments guard against revealing information that could identify individual voters’ ballots, especially in small places that have only a few voters assigned to each precinct. And they’re sometimes contending with state laws or codes that are unclear as to whether the cast vote record and ballot images should be publicly released. Lawsuits in multiple places, including Arizona and Pennsylvania, are now grappling with these questions.

The release of ballot images tends to be more contentious than the cast vote record spreadsheet.

“There’s sort of a separate question of, is a CVR, legally, a ballot,” Wallach said. “The whole term CVR happened because when you call something a ballot, then a whole bunch of laws kick into place.”

John Brakey, a Democratic activist who co-founded AUDIT USA and was a liaison for the Arizona Senate’s ballot review in Maricopa County, has sued multiple jurisdictions to access ballot images and cast vote records in an effort separate from Lindell’s. Brakey does not believe there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election. But he contends that both records should be combined to provide the next-best option for auditing outside of the hand-marked paper ballots themselves.

“We should be able to use it to build confidence in our election system in this country, to offer people, to prove to them that elections are real,” he said. “In my book, elections are no good unless they’re transparent, trackable and publicly verified with a valid library system.”

Providing both the images and spreadsheets will help improve confidence and transparency in elections, he said.

“The actual act of voting is the secret process. Counting is a public process. And anything less than that, then we do not have elections that we really can trust,” Brakey said.

In Arizona, Brakey has run into trouble accessing the ballot images and cast vote records. In Maricopa County, AUDIT USA sued for access to ballot images and lost — a court ruled that the images were not disclosable public records. The judge pointed to state law that requires electronic data or digital images from ballots be treated “at least as protective as those prescribed for paper ballots.” Paper ballots, the judge noted, must be placed in a secure facility “unopened and unaltered” for 24 months for federal office elections, or six months for other elections. That case is on appeal.

In Santa Cruz County, Arizona, the county took the unusual step of seeking a judgment from a court last month over whether the cast vote record, which it had turned over in the past, was a public record. In court filings, the county said it believed it would be sued by Brakey, so the court should weigh in on the question of whether the records were public. (Brakey said he didn’t intend to sue Santa Cruz County.) The county said requests for the cast vote record violate secrecy of ballots and conflict with state law.

Precinct cast vote records in sequential order or with timestamps raise the possibility that an individual voter could be identified, but randomizing the records and removing the timestamps before publicly releasing the record helps negate that threat, Hailperin said.

Dane County, Wisconsin, posts both the cast vote records and ballot images on its website underneath the heading “Do It Yourself Audit.” The county randomly sorted the records, which don’t contain identifying information. And a few locations’ cast vote records or images weren’t included because of some specific reasons, like saving errors and hand-counts, the website notes.

Ballot images, on the other hand, could possibly be connected with a person, should that person have a distinctive handwriting or place a specific mark on their ballot. And that leads to not only privacy concerns, but potential for vote-buying, Wallach said.

A voter could mark their ballot in a particular way, or even vote in a particular pattern in down-ballot races, as proof to the person who paid for their vote that the voter held up their side of the bargain, Wallach said.

Still other parts of the country don’t have cast vote records at all. Connecticut, for example, uses tabulators that don’t create them, said Gabe Rosenberg, chief of staff to the Connecticut Secretary of the State. That hasn’t stopped the office from getting requests, though. Some of the requests mirror the Lindell language, while others seem to have originated from a local Facebook group. Rosenberg has responded to the requests by explaining there are no such records that meet the request.

For the individuals filing the requests, Rosenberg doesn’t think they’re doing it maliciously to waste his time. But for those coordinating the requests nationwide, he thinks “part of the benefit for them is that it takes up the entire day.”

AZ election deniers 'most hated man' endures a job that’s 'psychologically unfun'

On the morning of the first big election he’d ever run, election deniers’ most hated man in Arizona wore an easy smile and downed a Diet Coke while brushing off mean tweets, misinformation and angry emails.

Just like he’s done for the past 20 months.

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer took office in January 2021 and immediately took heat for the 2020 election, which he didn’t run. A Republican, he’s been vehemently defending the county’s elections since then against the fringes of his own party, to the likely detriment of his own political future.

Tuesday’s primary was the first major test of Richer’s work as a recorder. And the election went smoothly in his county, despite what his detractors say.

“They would prefer if we fell flat on our face, which is kind of interesting considering, if you’re rooting against our success, you’re rooting against elections in Arizona,” he said.

While the rampant criticism gets to him sometimes, Richer is driven by an intense belief that he’s doing the right thing by defending the county and its election workers. He’s heard and responded to every claim about the 2020 election; the evidence is on his side. He wants to improve the office before he leaves it. The question is, will that be enough to make him stick around for another term’s worth of pummeling?

Previously a private practice lawyer, Richer ran for office for the first time in 2020 to try to replace Democrat Adrian Fontes, whose election changes drew near-constant ire from the GOP. Richer, at the time, said he wanted to depoliticize the office and relieve it of controversy. He’s instead spent his time in office defending Fontes’ work, and the controversy never ceased.

By the rubric that elections used to be analyzed by, Maricopa County went well: Vote centers opened punctually. Mailed ballots went out on time. People with problems got quick answers. No super long lines greeted voters casting ballots in person. Results were released on time and with updates throughout the night.

Certainly, the election had the kinds of problems all elections have: Printers went down here and there throughout the day. Some tabulation machines needed to be cleaned after ink clogged them. Some voters who insisted they were registered turned out not to be.

“We haven’t delivered on some sort of significant error or confusion,” he said.

While some on the right, like Turning Point USA leader Charlie Kirk, still insist Maricopa County had major problems on Tuesday, most turned their focus to a smaller county south of here, Pinal, where ballots ran out in some precincts.

Arizona’s most vehement 2020 election deniers, like secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem and state Sen. Wendy Rogers, largely won or are leading in their races. Don’t expect that to affect their views on elections much, though.

Despite all the scrutiny that comes along with the job, he doesn’t plan on leaving before his term runs out, as some of his colleagues in other counties have after facing endless harassment.

“We’re at the center of the universe in one of the most important topics in the United States right now, maybe in the world. I try and remind myself of that,” he said. “But of course, I would be lying if I wasn’t sometimes saying like, I signed up for this? I put in $120,000 of my own money [into my campaign] to have people say this type of stuff? But I’m in it now. I’m not a quitter.”

On Election Day, Richer was up at 4:30 a.m. and quickly started answering emails and messages. He dropped in on some polling sites to check out operations, talked to media, answered voters’ questions online, gave Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates a tour through the county’s central elections office. Over the course of the day, he drank probably a dozen Diet Cokes to keep him going. The Diet Cokes are a cornerstone of his days — on Twitter, he lists “I (heart) diet coke” first in his bio. By the end of a long Election Day, his desk was littered with empty cans.

But well ahead of Tuesday, it was clear what the biggest scandal of the day would be, and there was nothing Richer could do to quash it.

Pens. Again.

In 2020, it was #SharpieGate, a thoroughly debunked theory — which dogged his predecessor Fontes — that the use of Sharpies invalidated ballots. Under Richer, the county tested out a variety of alternative pens, landing on Pentel felt-tip pens as the ones least likely to gum up tabulators with wet ink, as ballpoint pens do.

Cue #PentelGate and a movement of GOP activists insisting that these pens were also flawed. One candidate running for Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Gail Golec, told her followers to steal the Pentel pens from their polling sites. Some did. That prompted a letter from Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell’s office, reminding Golec that stealing is illegal and that encouraging theft of the pens was a “deliberate attempt to interfere with election administration.”

The pen-stealing was an isolated problem, Richer said, and not one that affected anyone’s vote. Poll workers handed out pens rather than leaving them in voting booths. If people wanted to vote with a ballpoint pen instead, they could. They ideally would wait a bit for the ink to dry, but they weren’t required to do so.

Former County Recorder Helen Purcell told Richer this week that the county has used felt-tip pens since 1996, aside from the 2020 election, when it used Sharpies.

“It’s nothing new,” Purcell told Votebeat.

In the day since the election ended, the county has faced criticism that it’s not counting fast enough. For a large county with voting options including mailed ballots, dropping off an early ballot in person, and voting at the polls, it takes time and staff to manage a complicated count and ensure it’s accurate and that signatures match up.

The election results’ release times have largely tracked with previous cycles. The big difference in recent years in Maricopa County is close elections. People don’t wait with baited breath and frustration for results to drop when the result is a blowout.

It wasn’t just the pens. And it wasn’t just in the days leading up to Tuesday.

Since Richer took office in January 2021, he’s faced a barrage of conspiracies about his county’s elections, from Sharpies to dead voters to bamboo-laced ballots. All debunked, all responded to in depth by the county.

The waves of nasty emails increase when far-right website Gateway Pundit writes about the county or him, as they’ve done dozens of times so far during his tenure. He sends the ones that contain certain “special words” to law enforcement, the ones that verge on threats of physical violence.

Richer was accused of being a ballot harvester after security footage showed him picking up a ballot left on the ground and putting it in a dropbox. As an elections official, he can handle anyone’s ballot, regardless of a state law that prohibits the average voter from turning in ballots for people outside their family or people in their care. At the time, he was walking with the sheriff’s office, he said.

“I suppose they could have just cuffed me up right there,” Richer joked.

It’s not all funny to him. It’s sometimes disconcerting. Like the time recently when he was scheduled to speak at an event and had to cancel because of threats to the building. He shared that online because “some people are still behaving as if words and actions have no consequences” when they spread election lies.

And it’s sometimes … weird. He’s gotten a box containing mouthwash in the mail four different times, noting that he should wash his mouth out. It’s always in a beat-up package. (For the record, he hasn’t used the mouthwash.)

The county put up a fence around the downtown tabulation center, the site of protests after 2020 and of a dumpster-diving incident in March 2021. That’s when the fence went up permanently, a visual indicator for the level of additional security needed to protect elections and the people who run them against the ongoing threats.

That part of the job can be “psychologically unfun,” Richer acknowledges, and it’s human nature to fixate on the negative feedback. He mostly hears from people who are upset, which makes him feel like an airline worker: It’s not like people reach out if they had a normal, satisfying flight, he said.

But not everyone directs vitriol at Richer. Some buy him lunch or send him a postcard thanking him. Some at the polls thanked their poll workers, knowing how intense it’s gotten for them.

Most voters, though, aren’t paying much attention to the daily dramas of election administration in the first place. They notice when they have to wait a long time to cast a ballot or if their voting experience didn’t go smoothly, but that’s about the extent of it, he said.

Richer, as the elected official in charge of the office, expects to be put through the “meat grinder,” but it weighs on him when the venom hits his staff. He struggles with whether to beat back a rumor about a staff member, worried about drawing more attention while trying to beat it back. As the boss, he sits down with new hires one-on-one to lay out his three main expectations: treat each other with respect, operate with integrity and help make the office better.

“Regardless of where you thought this office was on January 1, 2021, we want it to be improved by December 30, 2024,” he said.

Some vocal critics of election administrators give Richer credit for his accessibility, even if they want to see more changes to how elections are run and laws changed to restrict voting.

Merissa Hamilton, a right-wing activist and former candidate for Phoenix mayor, is one of them. She’s been critical of election administration for years; her group submitted a list of potentially dead voters to the state attorney general, which netted one prosecution.

She appreciates that Richer will respond to calls, texts, and tweets. She helped a friend who was in the hospital use a special election team to vote this year and noticed ways the experience could have gone much better. Scheduling it required phone calls and documentation instead of a way to submit a form for assistance online, she said. She used a felt-tip pen and reported that it went all right, but said the county should be more accepting of other pens. She would like to see more printers at voting sites to make for a faster experience.

But she thinks Maricopa County’s election went “much smoother” this week than in the past few cycles, and she gives Richer part of the credit for that.

“For what the laws are currently today, and what the entire role of the actual election process is, I think the processes went well,” she said.

For Purcell, the former recorder who was voted out of office after long lines plagued voters during the 2016 presidential preference election, the level and frequency of criticism Richer faces outpaces anything she experienced.

“He’s had much more pressure put on him than any recorder, probably, has had,” she said.

Since he’s an attorney, his ability to analyze and keep a cool head helps him do his job well under the pressure, she said.

“Under the worst of certain circumstances, he’s done a fantastic job,” she said. Though she wonders — about him and others who’ve faced the level of constant criticism he has — whether they’ll run again.

Richer, for his part, says when he asks himself if he really wants to do this job for another term, the answer in his head is sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending on the day.

On Tuesday, as his first big election remained free of significant error and confusion, it was a yes.

Rachel Leingang is a freelancer for Votebeat and co-founder of the Arizona Agenda. Contact Rachel at rleingang@votebeat.org.

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