FOIA tutorial for Kathy

From: Jim March <jmarch_at_prodigy_dot_net>
Date: Wed Nov 10 2004 - 22:39:12 CST

Kathy Dopp wrote:

>Can anyone please tell me if FOIA requests can be made to obtain ballot
>recounts of just selected counties' election results or if FOIA requests
>have to be made to count the entire state's election results?
>Our stats analyses project, called USCountVotes (UCV) now seems to have
>found a home for its data on donated server space at Temple University and
>we will be benefitting and checking our methods of analyses against any by
>county recount data that is obtained. If any by county ballot recount
>results match our predictions, that will give us a stronger case to obtain
>additional recounts. We will systematically examine all states possible
>for the 2004 election to provide statistical analses to back up all
>efforts for obtaining any paper recounts available in any counties that
>look from our analyses to need recounts.
>So BBV group and USCountVotes will be co-synergetic (sp?) over the next
>two years. BBV will provide UCV with one additional measure for analyses,
>and UCV will provide BBV with additional evidence to take to court for
>obtaining recounts in particular counties.
>Thank you.

Right, where do we start?

OK. The Federal Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) *ONLY* covers Federal
documents. It's a way of asking for any document the government has
NOW, and cannot be used to force the gov't to create documents.

Each state has their own local "clone" of the FOIA in state law,
covering that state's documents. In California, it's the Public Records
Act (PRA), so a request under the PRA is called a PRAR where the last
"R" stands for "Request". In Maryland it's the "Public Information
Act". It varies all over the map.

If you make a "FOIA request" to a state like California that uses a
different term, you'll be signalling the agency that you're trying to
query that you're a clueless newbie and your odds of a reasonable (or
quick) response drops...sometimes right into the toilet.

In most states, including California and Florida, you can make requests
for electronic records. Which is a very good thing where voting-related
FOIAs/PRAR/etc are concerned - we can go after the vote-tally databases
such as the Diebold GEMS data files readable in MS-Access. Which
*might* have forensic traces of tampering in them, depends a lot on the
way the tampering was done.

For examples of California PRARs, see also:

Under most public records laws, you pay copying costs. In some states
you can also be charges fees for preparing the documents - not
California though.

In at least one state I know of (Tennessee) you have to be a state
resident to make a request. This is a rare weirdness though.

VOTES (the actual ballot of record where it exists in an optical scan or
punchcard system) are a special type of document not subject to plain
old public records requests, at least not in most states. They can't
be, because first they're a logistical nightmare to mass-copy due to
quantity and odd paper sizes. And if there's chad around, they're
particularly delicate - even when ink-marked, they can be deliberately
spoiled by tampering. So there has to be bitchin' security when
accessing them for recounts. That's why there are all sorts of special
laws concerning recount processes, and why when your intent is to
trigger a recount, you need specialty a election lawyer...or a small
army of same.

Upshot: find out your target state's FOIA variant, at least glance at
the name of the sucker, and then understand what sort of material you
can go after. Audit trail records, internal EMails, electronic vote
tally copies, they're all juicy targets...the actual paper votes though
are another ball of earwax entirely.

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Received on Tue Nov 30 23:17:26 2004

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