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Western Massachusetts town clerk says local officials overwhelmed by 'predatory records requests'

An old-fashioned crank turn ballot box used in Shutesbury, Mass.
Courtesy Grace Bannasch
An old-fashioned crank turn ballot box used in Shutesbury, Mass.

In recent years, conservative groups looking for evidence of voter fraud have been making large and repetitive public records request to town clerks across the country, including in Massachusetts.

The town clerk in Shutesbury, Grace Bannasch, oversees these requests in her community of about 1,700 residents — among loads of other duties.

Grace Bannasch, town clerk: I started working in this office as the assistant town clerk in 2019, and I was elected town clerk in 2020. And I want to start by saying I actually, I love filling public records [requests].

Carrie Healy, NEPM: On Twitter, you call yourself a "public records access fan girl." How do you describe that?

So, when you are working on the public's behalf, the public has a right to know what you're doing and why you're doing it. Public record access is a huge part of how the public is able to do that and know those things. I get to think about, how do I want to present these records so that they are really accessible? But then also I get to make sure they're labeled correctly or put in nice boxes for storage ... I just, I really ... enjoy it very much.

You tweeted back in March 2021 — and I would guess that some records requests must have fallen outside of usual parameters when you tweeted this. Do you recall what you tweeted when you posted that photograph of the ballot box and you addressed your tweet to the entire universe?

I do. So the picture is of one of the old-fashioned wooden crank-turned ballot boxes that you'll find all over New England. You know, it's a wooden box. It's got that crank-turn on the side. It's got the number ticker on the front. And when you put your ballot in the slot, there's that little bell that goes “Ding!”

And they have a particular smell, too.

Yes. Yes. Oh, my God, yes! And I'm sure many of us are familiar with these boxes. So, right after the 2020 election, I started receiving numerous records, requests for ballot images, which was very confusing for me. In Massachusetts, we don't create ballot images. Full stop. My wooden box can't possibly take any. It's not physically possible. And I kept getting these requests. The record requests just kept on coming.

The number and the volume of the records requests coming in that were simply unfillable — were you able to respond that the information didn't exist, and it couldn't be fulfilled in that way? And what was the response you got back?

So, here's how I want to also define what I mean when I say predatory records requests. This is not just any records request. It has to fit specific criteria. No. 1, it is implicitly or overtly hostile. No. 2, it is asking for records, either partially or wholly, that either don't exist or are not public. And it is easy to know ahead of time that those records either don't exist or would obviously not be public records. No. 3, it is submitted either successively or simultaneously to multiple election offices.

So, at the beginning we were all getting these requests a couple of times a week. You have to respond within those 10 days, and it was piling up. And it was hard. There were times when I was getting so many of those kinds of requests for records that didn't exist, that it interfered with the performance of my other duties. And as a town clerk, there is a lot of different stuff I do. You know, it's not just elections. So I was falling behind on getting people their dog tags.

But the really hard one was, there was one day when I decided I wanted to get through all the records requests first thing in the morning, and then another came in while I was working, and then another did. And by the end of the day, I hadn't managed to do anything other than fill these records requests. And at the end of the day, a family came in to pick up a death certificate for a loved one who had recently passed. And I had to apologize because I didn't have it ready yet. I felt terrible. I was so angry and frustrated because that other work should never take away from my commitment to my residents — and my neighbors.

That was hard. And I after that experience, I've definitely learned a lot about how to deal with these requests. Now, when these records requests come in, it's pretty easy for me to tell, all right, what parts of this can I provide? What parts of this are not applicable? And I just try to get through them as fast as possible, send them back. A lot of the time the answer is going to be, "There are no records responsive to your request."

So, it would be pretty hard for a well-meaning citizen or journalist to create a records request that you receive and then perceive as predatory, simply in the definition of predatory records request.

Yes. Yes.

Well, it's good to know we aren’t inadvertently doing that to you.

You have to be doing this on purpose.

That sounds like it's incredibly intimidating.

Yeah, I'm a lot less stressed out by them when I started. But, you know, we just wrapped up local election season. You've got a whole new raft of brand new town clerks coming in. There's no chance they'll have any context for these. And we had midterms heating up and they have no idea what's coming. How could they?

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.