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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: In a clerk's office near you, democracy is still under attack

ELECTION2020 (copy)

Voters cast their ballots in the North Adams polling station at the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish Center on Nov. 3, 2020. Election officials officials in Berkshire County and around the country have recently received a large increase in requests for information about the 2020 election.

In trying times, democracy is simultaneously essential and delicate. Democracy’s discontents know this, and their attacks on the tension points of our electoral system are being felt in clerk’s offices across Berkshire County.

From North Adams to Great Barrington, town and city clerks face an overwhelming spike in information inquiries and records requests, compromising their already divided attention in a critical election cycle. It’s a trend seen elsewhere throughout the state and country, and it’s linked to a network of high-profile election-deniers who seem to be more interested in overturning the table than accepting that their preferred presidential candidate lost fair and square in 2020.

Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, Massachusetts’ primary public information and elections officer, has been similarly bombarded. His office said at least some of the activity stems from a recent coordinated effort and a template disseminated by blogger and podcast host Terpsichore Maras-Lindeman, who is linked to Donald Trump allies Mike Lindell and attorney Sidney Powell. All three figures are enthusiastic boosters of Mr. Trump’s “big lie” that he, not President Joe Biden, is the legitimate winner of the 2020 — notwithstanding unanimous recounts, decisively dismissed lawsuits and one failed insurrection attempt. (Ms. Powell cited Ms. Maras-Lindeman as a witness in her frivolous request to the Supreme Court to overturn the 2020 presidential election.)

While it’s unclear just how many of the inordinate and unwieldy records requests jamming up Berkshire clerks’ inboxes are directly tied to this coordinated effort, all have the same effect: throwing gravel in the gears of our democratic institutions and straining those whose job it is to maintain them.

That’s low wherever it occurs, but it’s particularly punishing here. Unlike most other states, Massachusetts relies not on regional commissions but local clerks to run elections in their respective municipalities. That makes dealing with a sharp uptick in requests and complaints disproportionately tough, especially in smaller towns and cities where the clerk’s office is often an army of one.

Some Berkshire clerks told The Eagle they’re overwhelmed not just by the volume but the sometimes puzzling breadth of many recent requests: voters’ ID numbers, serial numbers of past elections’ election equipment; records from before the 22-month mandated retention date or information that the offices simply don’t have. The result: unnecessary stress on our neighbors who uphold local democracy’s most basic functions.

Under state public records law, clerks must respond to all requests, even the most inane ones for which they don’t actually have the requested information. That law exists for good reason; transparency and integrity within public offices, especially those overseeing the ballot box, are absolutely necessary. Still, it must be noted that there is no credible evidence for the claims of widespread fraud relentlessly pushed by this effort’s backers and others feeding the toxic falsehoods of Mr. Trump’s “big lie.” There is certainly no indication whatsoever of any irregularity sizeable enough to overturn the large margin by which President Biden bested Mr. Trump for Massachusetts’ electoral votes in 2020.

This should compel honest folks of any partisan stripe to dispel the fantasy that this full-court press against the public mechanisms of democracy is striving for clarity or accountability. Its intention is clearly observed in its predictable effect: Backers of a would-be autocrat revel in creating needless misery for local election officials as they strike an anarchistic blow for chaos against democratic institutions.

Even if they don’t succeed — and we certainly hope they don’t — it still underscores why our democracy, which relies both upon the rule of law and a system of norms, is so structurally vulnerable to polarization. What do we do when public records requests, intended to facilitate the free flow of information, are instead abused with the primary goal of promoting dysfunction? What do we do when a sitting president refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after a free and fair election? What do we do when one faction spurns rules, norms and any contrary evidence as an all-encompassing conspiracy when they don’t like the outcome?

Those are questions to which we unfortunately do not have all the answers right now. What alarming trends like this demand, though, is for honest patriots of any ideology to reject short-sighted partisan framing. We understand that some fraction of folks on the right side of the aisle will be unreachable on this issue. Some participating in this bull rush of clerk’s offices truly believe the fatuous conspiracy of the “big lie” in spite of mountains of opposing evidence; others know better but push it for political convenience or electoral revenge. The former are pitiful; the latter are shameful. It is all caustic to democracy — just ask your local clerk.

Still, we can’t and won’t write off all our fellow citizens who identify as conservative, Republican or just right-of-center who might share partisan overlap with these practitioners of scorched-earth realpolitik. If anything, now is the time to reach across the aisle and stand shoulder to shoulder in denouncing such attempts to undermine clerk’s offices and the important work they do, no matter who does the undermining. Wherever your political compass points — even if you voted for Donald Trump, even if you dislike the Democratic Party — we ought to join together in recognizing the danger of this cynical assault on democracy and acknowledging from where it originates.

The health of our republic depends on us putting the defense of our most basic democratic institutions above the partisan fray and condemning such blatant efforts to hamstring them.

Will we?

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