HARRISBURG — A Williamsport County judge is set to decide whether to force officials to provide electronic voter records on a voter-by-voter basis after the state’s Office of Open Records ruled Pennsylvania law makes them confidential.
Heather Honey, who runs the Lebanon, Pennsylvania-based firm Haystack Investigations, in October requested a digital copy of Lycoming County’s “votes cast record” for the 2020 general election in which Democratic challenger Joe Biden toppled Republican President Donald Trump.
Lycoming said no to Honey, saying Honey was essentially requesting the contents of ballot boxes and voting machines, information the state election code says is off-limits to public inspection.
In a January ruling, Office of Open Records Appeals Officer Erin Burlew agreed with the county’s chief electoral officer that the record of votes cast “is the digital equivalent of the contents of ballot boxes.”
Honey challenged that decision in county court in February, likening the record of votes cast to a spreadsheet and describing it as “simply a digital report tallying the results of ballots scanned into a tabulator. The CVR is a report that is prepared after an election from a desktop computer that is not and has never been the contents of a ballot box.
Thomas Breth, a Butler-based attorney for three Williamsport-area residents who were cleared to join the case — a local businessman, retired state trooper and Republican Rep. State Joe Hamm – said in a hearing last week there was evidence the Honey Desires records are random and cannot be used to determine how an identifiable individual voted.
“The whole argument that somehow this record of votes cast would allow anyone to match a voter to a ballot is incorrect,” despite officials’ claims to the contrary, Breth said. .
Honey told the court that the records she is looking for do not link the ballots to individual voters in a way that would identify them, and that they can help people verify the work of election officials when counting the ballot. total number of votes. At least one county granted him the cast-vote record data, Breth said.
“The CVRs are important public documents,” she wrote in the February lawsuit, acting as her own attorney. “The CVRs allow the public to inspect the adjudication process, because only the CVR indicates the number and character of the corrections made during the tabulation of the votes.”
Honey did not return messages seeking comment, nor did Lycoming County attorneys.
But in an April brief, the county argued the records in question were the equivalent of ballot boxes.
“The fact that modern technology has removed the physical box does not mean that this information is subject to public disclosure,” they wrote.
Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s acting secretary of state Leigh Chapman asked to intervene in the Lycoming County case, saying Honey “has or is likely to” file similar demands. for records of votes cast in other counties in the state.
Agency spokeswoman Ellen Lyon declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation, but state attorneys said records of votes cast were produced before votes were tabulated and counted.
“Thus, this record is not, as petitioner Honey contends, ‘a numerical tally,'” the State Department argued in a June 8 request to join the Lycoming County litigation. “Excessive votes may be displayed, which are resolved by other aspects of the EMS software. In other words, the data will not be processed and considering it at first sight will be problematic. »
Some systems “even capture scans of ballots, similar to photocopies or photographs, and therefore can potentially reveal a voter’s identity,” the state wrote. Data from cast-vote records may lack randomization, they said, so the data Honey researched can be compared to the polling station’s numbered list of voters to “create insight into how a person vote”.
In a Nov. 8 email to county election officials, State Department Bureau of Elections Director Jess Mathis cautioned them against releasing voting records.
Breth said the two days of testimony in the case this month contradict those voter privacy concerns and show the state has certified that Lycoming’s electoral system meets constitutional requirements for a secret ballot.
He noted that the state’s right-to-know law does not allow agencies to review how a requester plans to use public records.
“The public isn’t as dumb as the Commonwealth Secretary leads us to believe,” Breth said. “‘You’re not smart enough to get this data because you might be confused.’ It’s offensive.
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