The Curious Case of Coos County - 2020

The Curious Case of Coos County - 2020
Photo by Ludovic Migneault / Unsplash

This is the first in a series of three articles outlining some curious happenings in Coos County in the last two elections.  This article covers the stonewalling we have received from the Clerk's Office with regards to getting some simple information about election records from the 2020 general election.

The general election in 2020 had some oddities.  The number of people voting increased by over seven thousand from the previous general election in a county of roughly 49,000 registered voters.  The adjudication rate of ballots received soared from an average of around 4% to roughly 8.5%.

With these questions looming the Coos County Republican Central Committee (CCRCC) filed a Public Records Request (PRR) for all the ballot images on October 8, 2021.  The following paragraphs outline the chronological order of events as they unfolded.

On October 14th, 2021, the CCRCC received a response with an estimate of over $9,300 dollars to satisfy the request.  They were quoting the response as if they were asking for them to provide paper copies of all the ballots at a cost of $.25 per copy.  The request was for digital images which should take no more than five minutes to copy to a thumb drive.  This exorbitant sum seemed to be a way to stymie this, and potentially any, efforts to get those records.

On November 1st the CCRCC responded to the County by reducing the request to just the adjudicated ballot images.  The County reduced the amount to get these images to $1,582.25 which the CCRCC agreed to pay.  This is still the inflated rate that charges a per-ballot copying charge.

On November 8th a representative from the CCRCC showed up at the Coos County Elections Office and was met by the Coos County Counsel, Nathaniel Johnson, and Coos County Clerk,  Debbie Heller.  At that time they revealed that due to an "incident" back on February 21st of 2021 the disk with all the images had crashed and the images were not available.  Since the request could not be fulfilled their check was returned on November 12th, 2021.

To recap; they knew there were no ballot images that could be turned over back on February  21, 2021.  They did not mention it at the time of the October 8th request, or the November 1st request.  It seems they assumed that if they ratcheted up the cost of the request the CCRCC would give up.

Another point to consider is does the County Elections Office not do any backups of election data?  Backups are Information Technology 101.  Every credible business should have a plan to backup all their data in case of a computer or hard disk failure.  It is hard to imagine they did not do this basic task.

On November 9th, Coos County Clerk, Debbie Heller, resigned.

On June 27th, 2022, after discussions with an independent computer consultant, the CCRCC requested that the Coos County Elections Office rerun the whole election to regain the ballot images.  The Clear Ballot system that Coos County uses creates the ballot images when they are scanned and only that system can determine which ballots need to be adjudicated.  Therefore the only way to get the images back, both normal and adjudicated ballots, is to rerun the entire election. Since the data was lost due to negligence, they also stipulated that the Coos County Elections Office was responsible for the cost of getting those images back.

On July 13th Coos County Council requested a clarification.  On the 14th CCRCC responded.  On the 15th Coos County Council stated that since they no longer had the images they felt it was not a valid PRR and that was their final response.

On July 18th, 2022, CCRCC sent a response to the Coos County Council that, to this date, has not received a response.

The CCRCC filed suit in Circuit Court of Coos County, case #22CV29383, to get a judgment making the County Clerk produce the documents that they said they had. Simultaneously they are filing for a Temporary Restraining Order to stop any further destruction of November 2020 election materials.  The data retention period ends on September 3rd, 2022.

Just as a reminder: there are Federal and State laws that demand that all election data and materials be retained for at least twenty two months from the date of the election.  Those laws do not have exceptions for data that is deleted; either by accident, incident or by criminal means.

Things that should make you curious...

Why don't they want to rerun the election?  Are they afraid the results will not be the same?

Don't they do backups of election data?  All credible businesses do backups to ensure continuity of business.

Why did they not mention that the data was lost since the first two PRRs asked specifically for the ballot images which they knew no longer existed?  Did they hope the CCRCC would give up because the cost was too high?

Why did the County Clerk quit one day after it was revealed the ballot images had been lost?  Was there something going on she did not want to be a part of?

In closing...

The Coos County Commissioners appointed an interim Clerk to cover the office until the next general election when a new Clerk will be chosen.  That, too, is rife with curiosities which I will bring up in the next article about the Curious Case of Coos County.