It is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information launched by the News Leaders Association in 2005. To commemorate the occasion, we’ve asked journalists across different beats to share their tips for requesting open records and responding when facing roadblocks to access.
Jessica Huseman, editorial director at Votebeat, and Natalia Contreras, reporter at Votebeat Texas, offer their tips for accessing national and local election records.
What are examples of public records pertaining to local government that journalists might not think to request?
Contreras: I cover election administration, and recently there has been a lot of focus on Election Day problems — which happen everywhere and in every election — such as long lines, ballot-paper stock shortages, late openings, etc.
Election officials in each county keep track (or should be doing so) of those issues. Those are public record and can help us identify which technical or administrative problems are recurring in every election. We can ask why that’s happening and how that can be resolved. If there are technical issues, maybe the county needs to upgrade their equipment; if it’s an administrative or staffing issue, maybe more funding is needed for more personnel and training.
What public records should reporters ask for when covering national elections?
- Spending on voter education in your county and in your state.
- The calendars of your state’s secretary of state: Which lobbyists are they meeting with? Advocacy groups?
- The contracts and RFPs for the voting machines, paper goods, and service contracts necessary for carrying out an election.
- Emails between your secretary of state’s staff and members of extremist voting advocacy groups.
What are the biggest access issues you have faced when seeking records on elections and how did you overcome these obstacles?
Contreras: Litigation between counties and losing candidates right now is one of the biggest obstacles to obtaining documents relating to a specific election. However, in Texas at least, officials could choose to release the documents even if litigation is pending. So, as we all know, sourcing is definitely key to get access to some of that information.
What is your response or process when a public records request is denied?
Huseman: I call and see what I can negotiate. Sometimes, if you make a kind and convincing case that they were incorrect to deny you the record, the agency will reopen the request without requiring you to file an appeal. This can save precious weeks of your time. Alternatively, if your state’s attorney general office has an open records hotline, call it.
What is an example of a story idea that you found from a public document you requested?
Contreras: Last year, when county officials would not comment, we were able to tell an entire story based on email communications we requested between Gillespie County officials and the elections administrator there.
Those records allowed us to tell the story behind the exodus of the entire elections staff in that county. The story that made the rounds at the national level focused on the threats that stem from the Big Lie. But we found that it began way before that: the type of threats they’d received; how often they’d asked for help; how the county responded (not well); and how much lack of funding, staff, and lack of other resources from the county also contributed.
Share your FOIA and open records successes — or how you’ve worked around roadblocks — with The Latest subscribers. We’d love to feature your tips in our newsletter.
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