National Election Defense Coalition v. Lawson

Demanding access to election security emails

Free Speech For People has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the National Election Defense Coalition (NEDC) to uncover communications about election security to and from the National Association of Secretaries of State. The lawsuit under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act charges the Indiana Secretary of State, Connie Lawson, with unlawfully denying access to public records regarding the reliability and security of voting machines.

The lawsuit filed in state court in Indianapolis charges that Secretary Lawson’s refusal to provide records constitutes an unlawful denial of disclosure and/or interference with the right to inspect and copy public records, and/or an unlawful delay in responding to NEDC’s request.

Key facts

Caption National Election Defense Coalition v. Lawson
Court Marion County, Indiana Superior Court
Docket No. 49D06-1906-PL-024866
Status In trial court
Plaintiffs National Election Defense Coalition
Defendant Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson

Background

Secretary Lawson was the 2017-18 President of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), a non-governmental organization. She now serves as its past president and co-chair of the NASS Cybersecurity Committee. As president and past president of NASS, Secretary Lawson has frequently issued statements to the media, public, elected officials and the U.S. Congress about the security and trustworthiness of voting systems in the United States. Some of these statements reflect an inaccurate security profile of our election systems, a critical national security asset and could negatively impact our national response to foreign cyber attacks on our election systems.

In June 2017 testimony to the U.S. Senate Select Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Secretary Lawson insisted that it was “very important to underscore that voting machines are not connected to the Internet or networked in any way.” This is not accurate. Many voting machines (certified for use in states such as Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) contain wireless modems which connect to the Internet and expose voting systems to online attacks. In addition, there have been multiple jurisdictions (in states such as Pennsylvania) whose voting systems were found to be configured with remote-access software installed. Remote-access software facilitates remote control of the system over the Internet. In many cases, the vendor sold systems with deliberately installed off-the-shelf “pcAnywhere” remote-access software on voting system devices.

As a leader of NASS, Secretary Lawson’s comments can be especially influential in shaping U.S. policy necessary to secure our election infrastructure. NEDC seeks information about the origins of Secretary Lawson’s public statements related to her position in NASS leadership. NEDC therefore requested records of correspondence between NASS and the Secretary.

The request for public records

In September 2018, NEDC submitted a records request under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act seeking copies of communications between NASS and the Secretary of State’s office from May 1, 2017 through the date of the request. (NEDC later amended its request to cover only specific email domains and communications containing specific election security-related keywords.)

Over the course of the nine months since NEDC submitted its request, Secretary Lawson’s office has provided repeatedly evolving explanations for its denial or delay in providing responsive documents. As just one example, the Secretary’s office now claims that a standard email boilerplate (“The information contained in this communication from the sender is confidential”) in the signature block of every email from NASS staff exempts all of this private organization’s communications to the government from public disclosure.

Despite NEDC’s good-faith efforts to clarify and then explicitly narrow its request, and after considerable delay by Secretary Lawson, the Secretary has still not provided a complete response to that request. After months of fruitless exchanges and a complaint to the Indiana Public Access Counselor, NEDC has still not received the vast majority of responsive records.

Major case developments

In the news

  • Indianapolis Business Journal, Election watchdog groups sue Indiana secretary of state to get records on voting security (June 20, 2019)
  • Politico, Secretary of state, election security advocates square off (Jan. 25, 2019)

Legal team

Free Speech For People, a national non-profit public interest organization that fights for free and fair elections and holding power accountable, is representing NEDC pro bono in this matter. We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of William Groth of Fillenwarth Dennerline Groth & Towe LLP.

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