On Election Day in Shutesbury, population 1,700, voters place their marked ballots into a narrow wooden box on their way out of town hall. With the turn of a crank and a “ding!” of a bell, each ballot gets passed through a wheeled mechanism and falls into a bottom compartment of the box. White numbers on the manual counter tick up by one: The ballot is counted.
So the town’s part-time clerk, Grace Bannasch, was confused when she began getting pummeled with public records requests demanding voting machine tapes and serial numbers, copies of digital ballots, and file names, all related to the November 2020 presidential election.
She’s not the only one. Municipal elections officials across Massachusetts have been bombarded with these types of requests, which elections experts and political scientists say stem from supporters of Donald Trump who believe there are documents that will prove widespread election fraud in the 2020 election.
The problem has become so pervasive that it’s caught the attention of Secretary of State William F. Galvin, whose office has contacted Attorney General Maura Healey and is working on a coordinated response.
“They are self-appointed vigilantes who think they are going to go out and protect America,” Galvin said. “It’s a different kind of radicalism. It’s dangerous because we have an ongoing election.”
For local clerks though, the feeling is more bewilderment than brutality.
“I am sitting out here in Western Mass with our hand-crank wooden ballot box and I am thinking, ‘I have no idea what any of these even mean,’” said Bannasch, who serves as the only election official in the town just northwest of Amherst. “Over the last few weeks, I have just gotten so many of these. They have been so demanding and so broad.”
Bannusch has spent hours looking up the definitions of what the requesters are asking her to produce and oftentimes comes up short. Most items on their list simply don’t exist.
Behind the effort, which has been roiling local officials nationwide, are high-profile election deniers such as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and podcaster Terpsichore Maras-Lindeman, who believe Trump, not Joe Biden, is the legitimate winner of the November 2020 presidential election. Lindell, who attended the rally before the Jan. 6 insurrection, told Reuters last year that “I’m never letting the fraud go.” Maras-Lindeman routinely questions the integrity of the election on her blog and podcast, “Tore Says,” and boosted a conspiracy theory about foreign interference, according to The Washington Post’s coverage of an election lawsuit before the Supreme Court.
Clerks say the letters appear to be written using a template. Local clerks are required by law to respond to each request. While most states’ elections are carried out by county-wide or regional elections offices, Massachusetts elections are put on by local city and town clerks — small offices that have been struggling to handle the requests.
Galvin, whose own office as been on the receiving end of dozens of requests, said the most recent coordinated effort stemmed from a template disseminated by Maras-Lindeman, whom Sidney Powell cited as a witness when she asked the Supreme Court to consider overturning Trump’s election loss on behalf of the former president.
On her podcast, Maras-Lindeman discusses actions to be taken against those who were involved in “stealing” Trump’s victory. Her Telegram channel has nearly 55,000 followers, who use the platform to share various conspiracy theories and accusations, including about local elections officials.
“Some of [the clerks] even like to play a judge and jury, ‘Oh well you need to tell us if this is a legitimate case or frivolous,’” Maras-Lindeman wrote on Telegram earlier this month. “Like who are you to decide??? You’re just being told hold onto that information because we’re coming.”
Galvin said the requests for election records began to surge this year as these types of messages spread. His office alone received more than twice as many records requests as he received 2018 — 118 requests compared to 62.
He said these requests are “more shrill” than typical public records inquiries and imply conspiracies. He’d like the state to seek injunctive relief. The requests, which often demand documents that do not exist, slow down elections officials, Galvin said, and hinder preparations for the upcoming Nov. 8 election. He said town clerks have the civil right to not be interfered while conducting elections.
“That kind of ignorance, combined with the harassment and intimidation, causes me to suggest there needs to be some action preemptively taken against this,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, and we can’t spend our time responding to fantasies from people being egged on from conspiracy theorists in other states . . . I fear as we get closer to November 8, we are going to see more of this.”
The deluge of records requests is just one example of intimidation elections officials have faced since the 2020 presidential election. A study by the Brennan Center released in June found that a third of elections officials feel unsafe because of their jobs. A fifth of the officials surveyed cited threats to their lives as a job-related concern.
According to a report published Wednesday by States United Action, at least one election-denying candidate will be on the ballot in 27 states for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state — including Massachusetts GOP nominees for governor and secretary of state, Geoff Diehl and Rayla Campbell.
The study also found that 78 percent of election officials surveyed said social media, where mis- and disinformation about elections took root and spread, have made their jobs more difficult, and 54 percent said they believe the media have made their jobs more dangerous.
Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors, has been monitoring these records requests. She noted the problem is “particularly acute” in such places as Michigan, Wisconsin, and much of New England, where elections are administered at a local level.
“People think elections officials wake up the day before Election Day and decide to put on an election,” she said. “It takes months of preparation.”
Not only are local officials in Massachusetts feeling the squeeze, but they are also dealing with sending out mail ballots to anyone who wants one and setting up early voting locations — both time-intensive duties made mandatory by a new voting law passed by the Legislature.
Beth R. Klein, Sudbury town clerk since 2019, said the requests “feel more like harassment than anything else.” Juliette Haas, who works double duty in the tiny town of Egremont as its town clerk and board of health director, said she is used to getting requests, but the recent wave is “more frequent and more bizarre.”
“I want to respond sometimes and say, ‘are you kidding?’” Haas said. “If the request is to burden the town clerks and intimidate them, I ask: ‘why? What does that serve?’”
Bob Cutler, the Foxborough clerk and president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association, said he had never seen anything like this in his 14 years on the job.
When asked how these requests affect his job mid-election season, he responded with a chuckle.
“It adds another layer,” he said.
These types of efforts also play a larger role in casting doubt on electoral democracy, said Amel Ahmed, a voting systems expert and political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
While the people making the requests may have a sincere desire for change, people such as Maras-Lindeman are not acting in their best interest, Ahmed said. Instead, they are actually encumbering the system that the requesters are ultimately suspicious of.
The discourse sows the seeds in people’s minds that elections are not secure, laying the groundwork for future complaints about election integrity.
“Each one is a drop in the bucket,” she said. “But it creates a nebulous aura of doubt.”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report