How to Use Public Data Requests to Access Public Records for Better Decision Making (And to Help Government Where Current Processes Do Not Account for Fundamental Weaknesses in Overall Transparency)
1) A step-by-step to using public data requests, 2) An introductory case study on the City of Minneapolis's Konnech Inc. Contract, 3) Ideas on holding local government accountable in 2023
Public data should be readily accessible to the public so that you and I can make decisions with timely, relevant information. Know your state laws on government data to ensure you are treated fairly and in accordance with the laws on the books.
When a government employee denies, blocks, or delays public data being lawfully released, escalate as appropriate and make a note in your ongoing map of the local landscape.
If you live in Minnesota, read, understand, and apply CHAPTER 13. GOVERNMENT DATA PRACTICES.
Pertinent for today’s post 13.01, 13.02, and 13.03.
So far, I’ve data requested things like cast vote records, copies of thumb drives used to store cast vote record and other vote tally data, email communication between county auditors and election software/hardware vendors, tabulator logs, and documentation of Rick Weible’s successful hack into the KnowInk pollpads leading him to decline the 2016 contract which every other municipality in Hennepin County accepted (KnowInk pollpads, really just iPads, remain in use everywhere in Minnesota and are not certified by the Election Assistance Commission).
But one can public data request all sorts of things, such as vendor contracts, HAVA grant applications, CARES grant applications, County procurement manuals, etc.
Note: Voter registrations and histories are also available on the SOS website. (Counties have a dashboard view of the statewide voter registration system SVRS showing voter status changes over time; unfortunately, citizens like you and me are made to request multiple slices of the data at $46 per slice to piece together the puzzle of voter registrations and voter histories, which produced data discussed here questioning how Minnesota’s 2022 election could be certified at all when about half of its data work was incomplete.)
Here is a PDF version of Rick Weible’s Data Request guide which focuses on absentee ballot data and voter histories (requestable from the Office of the Secretary of State):
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County Public Data Request - Step-by-Step
Create the records request
Determine the responsible authority
Send, followup, document (then go back to #1)
1. Create the Request
Requesters need not say why they are asking for data. They merely should be clear about what they are asking for including the output, format, or method of receiving it.
If this is your first time, why not start with a template and get advice from others who’ve gone before?
In 2021 Jeffrey O’Donnell and others realized cast vote record (CVR) reports were public data and quite useful to show a replay of the election from the perspective of the aggregation of tabulators receiving, recording, and tallying ballots from voters. Mr. O’Donnell provides his FOIA tips here.
As a citizen of your county, you have the right to request any information from your county government.
Here’s a sample public data request for the cast vote record tailored to ES&S, Dominion, or Hart (the three vendors currently providing electronic voting equipment in Minnesota):
ESS County CVR Request: https://www.dropbox.com/s/8fqtlzfkhmreejm/ESS_County_CVR_2022_Primary_Election.docx?dl=0
Dominion County CVR Request: https://www.dropbox.com/s/bhe12v51dfbo3po/Dominion_County_CVR_2022_Primary_Election.docx?dl=0
Hart InterCivic County CVR Request: https://www.dropbox.com/s/rqh7v5hbrerxsdl/Hart_County_CVR_2022_Primary_Election.docx?dl=0
Note: Even though it was argued by supporters of the current MNSOS that CVRs aren’t helpful, the public is learning otherwise. The current MNSOS Steve Simon implied in 2022 that he was only beginning to learn about them. Digital records of vote tallies are obviously captured by default in not only the tabulator itself but also on the thumb drive (or other removable media) inserted into the tabulator which is sometimes used to transfer vote data to a central machine such as one housing ES&S’s ElectionWare software. “Obviously” because that’s what the machines are designed to do. It is also a standard on these election machines since 2005.
To catch up on this developing story, see parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this CVR coverup series as well as this dissection of the MNSOS’s deflection on value of the CVR.
It became apparent—contrary to these media remarks from Mr. Simon—that he did know about the cast vote records, or at minimum the Office of the Secretary of State had developed a default response, which many public data requesters throughout Minnesota received.
On multiple occasions the public was met with a one of or a combination of: 1) We don’t have them; 2) we don’t have to create them; or 3) we’re not going to give them to you.
Quantifiable patterns reveal the truth.
[ To verify this claim, public data requests could be made on any and all email communication between county offices and the Office of the Secretary of State regarding how to handle these bothersome requests. Something simple like the following should suffice: “Please send any communication referring to cast vote records or CVR between any county employee and any employee of the Office of the Secretary of State.” ]
Noticeably absent from so far every cast vote record denial is the necessary citing of a Minnesota statute (law) which says this public election data cannot be shared. County lawyers as a class are particularly detail oriented but so far in Minnesota they have been unable to find the law preventing release, and as such are unlawfully withholding public election data to the public. (In 84/87 Minnesota counties for 2020.) Even in yesterday’s meeting in Anoka County this was sidestepped by the admission that thumbdrives had been reused (a security no-no) from 2020 in the 2022 election and thereby overwritten. Despite this, it is possible the public election data being requested is still available on the county’s ElectionWare software—this method of retrieval was not offered.
2. Determine the Responsible Authority
Email or call your county to determine the responsible authority for your particular request.
3. Send, Followup, Document
Usually requests can be sent by email, but physical letters are also fine.
Some counties, like Hennepin, have an online request portal.
Followup on your request if not responded to within a week. Document the responses.
If you live in Minnesota, read, understand, and apply CHAPTER 13. GOVERNMENT DATA PRACTICES.
A few more tips are given at the very bottom of this post—feel free to jump there.
Minneapolis’s Contract with Konnech Inc.
tl;dr - Preparations to request from the City of Minneapolis its Contract for Professional Services, C-40044, with Konnech, Inc. (“Konnech”) for the Elections Management System.
When I was already running for MN Secretary of State this summer, someone trying to discourage me asked why I was doing so and suggested I volunteer or work as an election judge first to learn more about the process.
Well, now I may get my chance. Yesterday I signed up to be an election judge in Minneapolis. Not long after submitting a brief questionnaire I recieved this notification:
In an ongoing saga True the Vote’s Katherine Engelbrecht along with OPSEC’s Gregg Phillips have brought to light the existence of American election data on Chinese servers.
By becoming an election judge in Minneapolis, which through its Konnech Inc. contract uses PollChief, my personal data could well already be sitting on those same foreign servers. This from a True the Vote email in November 2022:
Since January 2021, True the Vote has worked to uncover the role Konnech, a Michigan-based election management software company with what appears to be deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and has potentially played in the subversion of America's elections.
The True the Vote team was made aware that the personal information of nearly two million American election workers was stored on a server in China, in violation of US law, as well as Konnech’s contracts between many states and counties. This information included poll worker names, addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers and bank account numbers. Realizing the severe national security implications of the data breach, Gregg Phillips and True the Vote immediately turned over the findings to the FBI.
For 15 months Catherine and Gregg worked with FBI field agents in Texas on a counter-intelligence operation to end Konnech’s involvement in America’s elections. The FBI already had Konnech “on the radar” due to questionable activities that extended far beyond US elections.
Detroit was the only city in Michigan using Konnech’s services, and the Detroit elections department quite swiftly terminated its contract with Konnech. But Minneapolis didn’t. (Minneapolis, like Detroit was for Michigan, is the only city in Minnesota contracted with Konnech.)
I wanted to learn more, so I emailed my Hennepin County Commissioner and copied the Minneapolis council members who recently voted to continue Konnech’s contract with the city.
Given recent revelations regarding Konnech Inc. leading to arrest of its CEO Eugene Yu, I am proposing an agenda item to discuss the appropriateness of Minneapolis's recent extension of Contract No. C-40044 with Konnech, Inc.
Hennepin County would not be the first to consider or reconsider its contract. You can learn more about this very important matter here:
As Child Well-being Advisory Committee Chair, you may also be interested to know that Konnech has connections into school systems in the United States meaning the CCP likely has sensitive data on children, parents, teachers, and administrators. http://www.schoolbrief.com/schoolcase.html
Including on this email council members Robin Wonsley, LaTrisha Vetaw, Jason Chavez, and Emily Koski who made up the 4-member quorum present to approve the amendment to Contract No. C-40044 which extended and expanded the contract, as well as on that day absent council members Jeremiah Ellison and Andrew Johnson.
Erik van Mechelen
After receiving no reply for three weeks I followed up with Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley’s staff member. Shortly, I was informed that Hennepin County had no contract with Konnech.
But Minneapolis does.
A Brief History of Minneapolis’s Contract
This brief history of the contract starts in 2015 and continues to the present, since Minneapolis is still under contract with Konnech Inc.—perhaps they know something that the Detroit elections department doesn’t know.
In Barb Malinski’s 9/21/2015 request for committee action (presented by Chief Information Officer Otto Doll to the Ways & Means Committee.
The following is given in the description:
The City’s Elections Management System is at a crossroads. The current system does not meet the needs of Elections and Voter Services. A significant investment from both Information Technology (IT) and Elections would be needed to add the required functionality to the existing system.
Crossroads? How was this determined? Based on what metrics?
How did the current system not meet the needs of Elections and Voter Services? Since other cities do not use Konnech’s services, what differentiates Minneapolis’s needs from theirs?
Also noted in the same request for committee action:
Services to be performed are coordination with City personnel relating to the successful implementation of a new Elections System, as well as the successful transfer of data from the City’s current program to the new system.
What was the new Elections System?
What does transfer of data look like?
A significant investment from both Information Technology (IT) and Elections would be needed to add the required functionality to the existing system.
What is the "required functionality"?
In 2016, another request for committee action was again prepared by Barb Malinski and delivered by Otto Doll, this time seeking authorization to increase the contract size not to exceed $260,000.
In April 2015, Information Technology and City Clerk’s Office issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the design, implementation and support of a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) Elections Management System, along with ancillary software and services. After a thorough vetting, Konnech was the awarded vendor for this system.
What was this "thorough vetting" process? (This, like many of the questions so far, can be data requested.)
It goes on:
Based upon the recent primary election, additional enhancements were found necessary to be implemented before the November 2016 general election. These enhancements will allow for better reporting, improved training functionality, tracking the core volunteers, and gaining staffing efficiencies.
Expand on "tracking the core volunteers".
Point or provide evidence for "improved training functionality". (To make sure we even got what was paid for.)
Then in 2017 we once again see a request to increase the contract size, this time to $385,000.
Customizations are necessary to better match the business processes and the laws that govern the election process and allow greater enhancement of the application to better align this software. In addition, mobile apps and greater reporting functions are available that were outside the original scope that will help streamline the business processes.
Describe "customizations are necessary".
Expand on "mobile apps and greater reporting functions".
In 2020 comes yet another request, this time from the Policy & Government Oversight Committee from Lee Peterson, presented by Fadi Fadhil, to increase the contract size and extend the contract duration for 2 years until Sep 23, 2022.
The City is facing immediate upcoming elections in 2020 and 2021 and the Konnech PollChief Election Logistic Management software is an essential component to managing these elections and ensuring a successful process (emphasis added). The Konnech software is critical to support the following: Election Judge Tracking, Polling Place Assignments, Training, Payroll Processing, Worker Evaluations, Equipment Inventory and Delivery, Polling Place Management, Partner Organization Management, Election Day Call Management, and various reporting capabilities.
Ensuring a successful process for who?
Finally in September 2022, only weeks prior to Konnech’s CEO Eugene Yu being arrested in Michigan, Minneapolis authorizes not only an increase of $151,750 not to exceed $586,750 but also an extension through Dec 31, 2027.
Background analysis is given in the Sep 6, 2022 request for committee action:
The City has a Contract for Professional Services, C-40044, with Konnech, Inc. (“Konnech”) for the Elections Management System. The Contract has a value of $435,000 and expires on September 23, 2022. Konnech provides a commercial-off-the-shelf Elections Management System, along with ancillary software and services for the Elections and Voter Services Departments.
The City is facing immediate upcoming elections and the Konnech PollChief Election Logistic Management software is an essential component to managing these elections and ensuring a successful process. Konnech’s software is critical in supporting the following: Election Judge Tracking, Polling Place Assignments, Training, Payroll Processing, Worker Evaluations, Equipment Inventory and Delivery, Polling Place Management, Partner Organization Management, Election Day Call Management, and various reporting capabilities.
The City also seeks to transition to Konnech’s cloud version of PollChief of which Konnech has agreed to implement free of charge. Konnech’s Election Management System cloud offering has many features that the City desires. Furthermore, there is also an opportunity to integrate the Elections Management System with the City’s PeopleSoft environment.
IT and the Clerk’s Office therefore request to extend this Contract through December 31, 2027 and increase the Contract by the amount of $151,750 for a new not-to-exceed total of $586,750.
If the cloud version is being implemented free of charge, what exactly is being paid for? (This too can be requested through a public record or public data request.)
The bottom line is that there is little transparency about what exactly Konnech’s services offer to Minneapolis. If they are so important for election administration and logistics, why isn’t the rest of Minnesota also under contract with Konnech?
Any Information is Fair Game
To emphasize: If you live in Minnesota, read, understand, and apply CHAPTER 13. GOVERNMENT DATA PRACTICES.
Jeffrey O’Donnell reminds us on his FOIA tips page that “As a citizen of your county, you have the right to request any information from your county government.”
It is up to the county government, in particular the responsible authority (usually in concert with the county attorney) to ask the requester for clarification or determine if the request cannot be lawfully completed.
Anything that you can think of which would help you learn more about a particular thing is fair game.
At the end of the day, it’s a choice whether we actively live out our civic duty toward a transparent and accountable local government.
If we sit back and merely complain that the government’s processes are opaque, then we could be accused of being complicit to that lack of transparency. (Maybe make it a New Year’s resolution for 2023 to submit one public data request per week—ask for what seems important or even something you are merely interested in knowing.)
In future, I envision a process where certain categories of documents, records, and data are immediately presented to the public, perhaps through a free service whereby citizens can “subscribe” to certain keywords to be notified when new records come onto the system. (This in fact is part of the vision for Project Apario, which I encourage researchers to try out and support with a paid subscription.)
Finally, do not be discouraged when receiving a deflection or denial in response to your requests. Of dozens sent, all but TWO of my data requests have been initially denied. Merely document it and follow up, especially if no Minnesota statute (law) has been cited to deny the public record request.
Once you get the hang of it, invite your friends and neighbors to join you. It’s a simple activity that only requires a few taps of the keyboard and an inquiring mind.