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Port: ND election officials being flooded with 'canned' records requests from election conspiracy activists

"What is happening nationwide is happening here too," Secretary of State Al Jaeger says. "We’re working through it all the best we can."

PHOTO: November 7 election rally in Bismarck
Minot resident Mark Todd holds a sign at a rally in support of President Donald Trump in Bismarck on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.
Kyle Martin / Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — Earlier this week The Washington Post reported on an "unprecedented wave of public records requests" filed by election conspiracy activists supporting disgraced former President Donald Trump.

These requests are impacting nearly two dozen states, and "may be intended to hinder" the work of election officials.

Is North Dakota among the states targeted?

Secretary of State Al Jaeger, a Republican, says yes.

"What is happening nationwide is happening here too," Jaeger told me. "We’re working through it all the best we can."

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Jaeger says his office has received around 50 of what he calls "canned emails," and possibly more as some of the emails ask his personnel to click on external links, which they don't do for security reasons.

Many of these requests are coming from people using made-up names, or from people not using names at all. Others come from actual North Dakotan citizens. "Occasionally, we’re learning that the same person who sent us a message has also sent it to each county as well," Jaeger said.

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Jaeger says his office is complying with the requests, as the law requires, but often, since the requests are being sent in bulk, they're being asked for things they can't provide.

"We are willing to provide information, but the 'canned' messages are asking us for records that do not exist with the state’s voting system. When we cannot supply what is being asked, we are accused of being non-transparent. However, the truth is that we cannot provide something we don’t have just because some national 'personality' says we do."

Asked which "personality" he was referring to, Jaeger said, "Mike Lindell," referring to the Minnesota-based pillow salesman who was a political ally and adviser to Trump.

This, too, follows the national trend. The Post's reporting indicates that "many of those submitting the requests say they are following the call of several leading election deniers allied with Trump, including MyPillow founder Mike Lindell."

Lindell has a not-small presence in North Dakota. His ads are prevalent on the radio stations owned and managed by Flag Family Media. That company, co-founded by right-wing radio host Scott Hennen, routinely traffics in election conspiracy theories and other bizarre catechisms of the QAnon crowd , and their influence is growing.

They even recently bought a 114-year-old newspaper in western North Dakota .

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"It puzzles me because North Dakota has had a history of having well-run elections that are accurate," Jaeger continued. "It has been proven many times with recounts, etc. On the other hand, no one has proven otherwise. Any questions about the state’s voting system and process have only based on rumor and speculation by 'experts' without credibility that have made no effort to observe our voting process."

The numerous requests are a distraction, Jaeger says, as his office gets ready for the November election.

Al Jaeger
N.D. Secretary of State Al Jaeger speaks at a 2018 press conference.
Forum file photo

"Today, we are 56 days from election day and 10 days from military and overseas ballots going out," he said. "These requests are taking a lot of our time and that of county election officials. It is taking us from the task at hand, which is administering an election and the citizens expect of us to do."

Jaeger's complaint is echoed by election officials in other states, both Republicans and Democrats.

"They believe that those organizing the effort are not out for information but rather are trying to cause chaos as their fall crunch time approaches, making it more difficult to run smooth elections and giving critics new openings to attack the integrity of election administration in the United States," the Post reports . "They point to the identical nature of the requests as well as the number of duplicates individual counties have received — each one of which they must respond to, by law."

Open records laws are one of the most important tools in keeping government accountable. Not just for the news media, but for the general public as well. Keeping those laws effective and accessible requires a lot of work, as many who work in and around government would rather they didn't exist.

So to see those laws abused this way, weaponized in a way not intended to illuminate the public but to throw a monkey-wrench in the cogs of government, is galling.

This story was updated to include additional information about Mr. Lindell's involvement which was provided by Secretary Jaeger after publication.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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