The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project In a relationship with The Salt Lake Grandstand.
Goud Maragani, the Republican nominee for clerk in Salt Lake County, has made government transparency a central part of his campaign, citing the increased interest of citizens requesting public records to understand the election process.
Maragani’s campaign promises, like his vow to post images of voter votes online, could subject the county to a lawsuit and violate multiple Utah Supreme Court decisions.
“Some county officials have gone to extremes, charging citizens thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, to gain access to their own government’s documents,” a statement on Maragani’s campaign website said. He also pledged to “exercise the utmost discretion to issue free or low-cost GRAMA inquiries to Utah citizens.”
This would be good news for a small but active group of individuals who have denied President Joe Biden’s victory and aggressively searched records held by county officials in what these conspiracy theorists claim to prove voter fraud in the 2020 election Has .
Before his GOP nomination, Maragani took to social media to allegations that Democrats were “cheating” and stealing the 2020 election.
Even after numerous legal battles over the election, all of which have yielded no fraudulent results — some even from cases heard by judges appointed by President Donald Trump — abstainers continue to seek evidence.
In 2020, the Salt Lake County Administrator’s Office received a public records application known as GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act). But after Trump claimed the election was stolen, the bureau received 86 inquiries in 2021. Another 62 applications were submitted through August this year. A number of these requests involved checking official emails for evidence of fraud, with dozens of such requests submitted by a handful of people.
From January through September of this year, one person alone filed 18 separate GRAMA requests, which the agency’s bureau estimated would include 97,154 emails and other documents, all of which would cost thousands for staff to review and redact , to ensure that no private information is accidentally released. Maragani himself submitted a dozen applications in 2021.
In an interview, Maragani was surprised to hear about the nature of the applications submitted but hopes that will change if he is elected.
“My theory is that the volume of [GRAMAs] going down, the temperature will go down with new management, especially my management style,” he said.
As an attorney, Maragani says he previously worked as the Freedom of Information Officer for the United States Patent and Trademark Office, where he processed requests for records and learned how to help applicants understand the system and narrow down overly broad requests.
Maragani believes that if the county clerk cooperated with the applicants, fewer such massive GRAMAs would be filed.
“When the government withholds information, people fill in the blanks,” Maragani said.
According to records obtained by the Utah Investigative Journalism Project, the Salt Lake County Bureau identified 179,873 potential records, mostly emails, of GRAMAs filed from January 2021 through August 2022. This does not include some requests that were so large that accurate estimates could not be provided.
Sherrie Swensen, who is stepping down after her current tenure as district secretary, says these requests were expensive, time-consuming and unprecedented in her 32-year experience.
“This [requests] are something we’ve never encountered before because they’re all very broad,” Swensen said.
Many queries searched emails from county official employees for a variety of keywords, including terms such as “steal,” “scam,” “Trump,” and “China.” But documents were also requested from clerks based on incredibly common search terms like “electoral roll,” “canvas,” and “voice by mail.”
Government agencies are often required to redact or redact information in records they make available to the public. In many cases, this information includes private details or personal information about residents.
For his part, when asked if he should pay for the staff who do this tedious work, Maragani asked, “What do you think they would edit?”
When the need to black out voters’ personally identifiable information and other reasons were explained, Maragani said he still hoped a diplomatic approach educating inquirers about GRAMA would help narrow down such requests, but that he might will charge reasonable fees to deal with requests that are too broad.
“If it overwhelms the office, we have to deal with it appropriately at that point,” Maragani said.
On the other hand, Maragani believes that if more information is automatically put online by the case officer’s office, inquirers could be satisfied. This may include scanned ballot images, which would allow citizens to do their own vote count. It’s also an idea the bureau’s current office deems completely illegal.
Maragani gained significant experience with GRAMA requests through his work on the Salt Lake County Republican Party’s Election Integrity Committee, which released a report in May 2021 criticizing the clerk’s system.
The partisan report made recommendations to the legislature, including that various voter records, such as scanned ballot images, be posted online to allow the public and third parties to conduct election audits.
For example, since 2021 there have been 13 requests for “voting records,” as well as many other requests for scanned ballot images and ballot copies, including requests from Maragani himself. “Voting records” and similar records have been the types encouraged by Trump-affiliated election conspiracy theorists like MyPillow founder Mike Lindell were being requested by district secretariats across the country.
The clerk has denied all of those requests, citing state laws that prohibit tampering with cast ballots and require that they be secured and left alone for 22 months after the election. At the end of that time, the law requires the Returning Officer to “destroy them without opening or examining them.”
Maragani says such records could do a great service if they were published online and allowed citizens to conduct their own limited scrutiny. But he also says he will not be a “rogue writer” and that if a GRAMA seeks those records, he will ensure they cannot be linked to an individual voter. He would then consult with the district attorney, and if the office agreed that the records could be released, he would then contact the lieutenant governor’s office, which oversees the statewide election.
If that office disagreed with his interpretation, Maragani said he would not be afraid to oppose it.
“I’ve sued before and I like to win,” said Maragani. “I don’t like losing.”
Even if the state Office of Elections disagreed with Maragani’s interpretation of Utah’s law, he said he could then publicly announce that he plans to release the records in 45 days and give parties an opportunity to ask the office to go on lockdown to sue for release.
However, the current office says such requests are not permitted by law. The office even set out legal precedent in a letter following a GRAMA request Maragani himself filed in July 2021, asking for “copies of the original 2020 general election ballots.”
The letter identified 1903 and 1941 Utah Supreme Court decisions noting that ballots must remain secure after counting in the event an election recount matter must be brought before a judge.
In both cases, the Utah Supreme Court ruled against parties who worked in voting offices and opened or inspected ballots after the election or failed to properly secure them. The court found that the temptation to rewrite election history was too great to have ballots opened, examined, or tampered with in any way after they were cast — even by trained election officials.
“In such a case, the danger of tampering with the ballots is such that those who are legally charged with keeping them should not be afforded an opportunity,” said the Utah judges in Farrell v. larsen
Although these cases have been cited in direct replies to Maragani, the lawyer says he does not recall them. However, he says the law is open to interpretation and he would investigate and not pursue it if he felt the law was already clear.
He’s also not sure if it’s a priority matter. He believes voters have responded better to other policy proposals, such as posting logs online showing how many ballots had to be “assessed” or manually checked because the ballots could not be read electronically.
However, he understands that transparency policies can increase costs, especially if a decision to release ballot images results in a lawsuit. But he believes a trial could also bring clarity to the matter.
“In a democracy you have to be transparent and that comes at a cost, but that’s the cost of doing business,” Maragani said.
When the county denied Maragani’s request for original ballots, the bureau challenged that notion.
“Providing copies of ballots to any or any candidate who wanted them would allow parties to conduct their own unsupervised recounts with results that would differ from the decision on the supervised ballot count and undermine the electoral process.”
https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2022/10/06/salt-lake-county-clerk-candidate/ The candidate’s campaign promises for the Salt Lake County nomination could land the county in a lawsuit