The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Goud Maragani, the Republican candidate for Salt Lake County clerk, has made government transparency a key part of his campaign, citing increased interest from citizens requesting public records to understand the election process.
Maragani’s campaign promises, like his vow to publish voter ballot images online, may involve the county in a lawsuit and run afoul of multiple Utah Supreme Court decisions.
“Some county clerks have gone to the extreme, charging citizens thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars to obtain access to their own government’s documents,” reads a statement on Maragani’s campaign website. He also promised to “exercise maximum discretion to provide free or low-cost GRAMA requests to the citizens of Utah.”
This would come as good news to a small but active group of individuals who have denied the victory of President Joe Biden and have been aggressively seeking records from county clerks’ offices to, these conspiracy theorists allege, prove there was electoral fraud in the 2020 election.
Leading up to his GOP nomination, Maragani leveled accusations on social media that Democrats were “cheating” and stealing the 2020 election.
Even after numerous legal battles over the election all resulted in no findings of fraud — some even from cases heard by President Donald Trump-appointed judges — election deniers continue searching for proof.
In 2020 the Salt Lake County clerk’s office received one public records request, known as a GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act). But after Trump claimed the election was stolen, the office in 2021 received 86 requests. Another 62 requests were filed this year through August. A number of these requests have sought evidence of fraud in official emails, with dozens of such requests filed by a handful of individuals.
From January to September of this year, one individual alone filed 18 different GRAMA requests that the clerk’s office estimated would total 97,154 emails and other documents, all of which would cost thousands for the staff to review and redact to make sure private information wouldn’t accidentally be released. Maragani himself filed a dozen requests in 2021.
In an interview, Maragani was surprised to hear of the types of requests filed but hopes that will change if he’s elected.
“My theory is that the volume of [GRAMAs] will drop, the temperature will come down with new management, particularly my management style,” he said.
Filling in the Gaps
As an attorney, Maragani says he’d previously worked as a Freedom of Information Officer for the United States Patent and Trademark Office, where he handled records requests and learned how to help requesters understand the system and narrow down overly broad requests.
Maragani believes if the county clerk worked cooperatively with record requesters there would be less filing of such massive GRAMAs.
“When government holds information back, people fill in the gaps,” Maragani said.
According to records received by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project, the Salt Lake County clerk’s office identified 179,873 potential records, primarily emails, from GRAMAs filed from January 2021 through August 2022. That doesn’t include a few requests that were so large that exact estimates couldn’t be provided.
Sherrie Swensen, who is stepping down after her current term as county clerk, says these requests have been expensive, time-consuming and unprecedented in her 32 years of experience.
“These [requests] are something that we’ve never encountered before, because they are all very broad,” Swensen said.
Many requests sought emails from county clerk staff based on a variety of keywords, including terms like “steal,” “fraud,” “Trump” and “China.” But requests also sought documents from the clerks based on incredibly common search terms like “voter roll,” “canvass” and “vote by mail.”
Government agencies often have to redact, or black out, information in records they release to the public. In many cases this information includes private details or personal information about residents.
When asked about covering the expense of staff members performing this tedious work, Maragani in turn asked: “What do you think they would be redacting?”
When the need to redact voters’ personal information and other reasons were explained, Maragani said that he’s still hopeful that a diplomatic approach that educates requesters on GRAMA will help narrow such requests, but that if necessary he will charge reasonable fees to deal with overly broad requests.
“If it is overwhelming the office then we have to deal with it appropriately at that point,” Maragani said.
Then again, Maragani believes requesters may be satisfied if more information is automatically posted online by the clerk’s office. That may include scanned ballot images that would allow citizens to conduct their own count of the vote. It’s also an idea that the current clerk’s office says is completely illegal.
‘Cost of doing business’
Maragani gained a lot of his experience making GRAMA requests through his work on the Salt Lake County Republican Party’s Election Integrity Committee, which posted a report in May 2021 critiquing the clerk’s system.
The partisan report made recommendations to the Legislature, including that various voter records such as scanned ballot images be put online so that the public and third-party groups can conduct DIY election audits.
Since 2021 there were 13 requests, for example, for “cast vote records,” along with many other requests for scanned ballot images and copies of ballots, including requests from Maragani himself. “Cast vote records” and similar records were the kinds that Trump-aligned election conspiracy theorists like MyPillow founder Mike Lindell have encouraged be requested from county clerk offices across the country.
The clerk has denied all these requests, citing state law that prohibits tampering with cast ballots and requires they be secured and left alone for 22 months after the election. At the end of that time, the law requires the election officer to “destroy them without opening or examining them.”
Maragani says that such records could provide a great service if posted online, allowing citizens to do their own limited audits. But he also says he will be no “rogue clerk,” and that if a GRAMA sought these records he would make sure they couldn’t be linked to an individual voter. He would then consult with the district attorney, and if the office agreed the records could be released he would then consult the lieutenant governor’s office, which oversees elections statewide.
If that office disagreed with his interpretation, Maragani said he wouldn’t be afraid to push back against them.
“I’ve litigated before and I like to win,” Maragani said. “I don’t like to lose.”
Even if the State Office of Elections disagreed with Maragani’s interpretation of Utah law, he said he may then make a public posting that he planned on releasing the records in 45 days and give parties the chance to sue the office to block release.
The current clerk’s office, however, says such requests aren’t allowed by law. The office even spelled out the legal precedent in a letter following a GRAMA request Maragani filed himself in July 2021 seeking “copies of original ballots from the 2020 general election.”
The letter identified 1903 and 1941 Utah Supreme Court decisions that found ballots, after being counted, need to remain secure in case an election recount matter has to go before a judge.
In both cases, the Utah Supreme Court ruled against parties who worked at election offices and opened or examined ballots post-election or didn’t properly secure them. The court determined there was too much temptation to rewrite electoral history to have ballots opened, examined or tampered with in any way after they were cast — even by trained election officials.
“In such case the danger of tampering with the ballots is so great that no opportunity must be afforded by those who are entrusted, under the law, with their safekeeping,” read the opinion of the Utah justices in the Farrell v. Larsen case.
Even though these cases were cited in responses direct to Maragani, the lawyer says he doesn’t remember them. He says though the law is up to interpretation and he would look into it, and wouldn’t pursue it if he felt the law was already clear.
He’s also not sure it’s a priority matter. He believes voters have responded better to other policy proposals, like posting online logs that show how many ballots had to be “adjudicated” or manually inspected because the ballots couldn’t be read electronically.
Still, he understands that transparency policies might increase costs, especially if a decision to post ballot images results in a lawsuit. But he thinks a court battle could also bring clarity to the issue.
“In a democracy, you have to be transparent and there is a cost to that, but that is the cost of doing business,” Maragani said.
In the county’s denial of Maragani’s request for original ballots, the office challenged this notion.
“Providing copies of ballots to anyone or any candidate who wanted them would allow parties to conduct their own unmonitored recounts with results that would vary from supervised counting ballot adjudication and undermine the election process.”