Op-Ed: The Lies of Former Chief Deputy Secretary of State Illustrate the Importance of Idaho’s County ClerksBy Joseph Gish • March 29, 2023
During the 2022 legislative session, Rep. Pricilla Giddings and I introduced House Bill 694 which forced the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare (IDHW) to make their monthly deceased voters report a public record. The passing of this Bill exposed data that eventually led to the removal of approximately 1200 dead people from Idaho’s voter rolls. This was a major win for Idaho election integrity. However, the ongoing story (outlined in this Op-Ed) that led to the passage of HB 694 also exposes the lack of transparency of Denny’s Idaho Secretary of State’s office, and their willingness to lie and cover-up to maintain that lack of transparency.
The story started on August 15th, 2021 when I submitted two Public Records Requests (PRRs) to the Nez Perce County Clerk requesting 2 years of IDHW deceased voter reports as well as the list of voters that had been canceled from the voter rolls during that same period. My intent was to simply compare the two lists to see if the deceased voters had been removed from the voter rolls. Nine days later, on August 24th, 2021, a Secretary of State’s office staff member sent an email to every county clerk, election director and election staff member in the state of Idaho warning them to be suspicious of PRRs requesting the monthly deceased voter reports. Below is an excerpt from this email.
“Dear County Clerks and Election Directors and Elections Staff,Advertisement
We are noticing Public Records Requests that may seem like normal request but are actually suspicious in nature. An example that has been brought to our attention by a few counties is a Public Records Request for Vital Statistic Death Lists for the past two years along with a second request of a Voter Registration List of removed voters. Please be extra careful in responding to what information is being requested and if you have any questions about what is being requested, please feel free to call us to confirm before you process the request.”
The day after this email was sent, my PRR requesting deceased voter reports was denied by Nez Perce County citing that the information requested was a “vital statistic.”
(Note: At the time I wrote an “Open Letter” to the Secretary of State about this email which can be read at the following link: https://idahodispatch.com/op-ed-sec-of-state-denny-why-are-you-obstructing-citizen-election-integrity-efforts-in-idaho-open-letter-to-idahos-secretary-of-state/ )
Given this email was sent out nine days after I submitted my two PRRs and that it described them perfectly, there was no doubt in my mind that my two PRRs were the subject of this email. However, I was surprised that the email stated additional PRRs were submitted in other counties that requested the same information.
Given the chilling effect this email had to have on the County Clerks’ willingness to respond to requests for deceased voter reports, I was left with two options: take my county’s PRR denial to District Court, or introduce a bill to the Idaho legislature that would explicitly make these reports a public record. Given how the statute was written and how the PRR denial violated the Federal 1993 Voter Registration Act, there is no doubt a court challenge would have been successful. However, I elected to introduce a bill to the Idaho legislature since it would be faster and less costly than a court challenge, and Rep. Priscilla Giddings was willing to sponsor the bill. Although House Bill 694 would prove to be successful and expose the deceased voters still on the Idaho voter rolls, the drama with the Secretary of State’s office was just beginning.
On Feb 2nd, 2022 I submitted a Public Records Request to the Secretary of State’s office requesting all PRRs referred to in the Secretary of State’s August 24th, 2021 email. To my surprise, the next day I received a phone call from the Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck who informed me my PRR was being denied. He explained the PRRs I had requested were the subject of a DHS/CISA meeting and had been made classified by virtue of being transmitted to DHS/CISA via their local “fusion center.” (I personally held a secret clearance and handled classified data for almost 2 decades. Based on this experience, I knew at once Mr. Houck’s assertion that the PRRs had been made classified was absurd.) Mr. Houck continued to tell me that the August 24th, 2021 email in question had nothing to do with my PRRs to the Nez Perce County Clerk and that the timing of their email was an unfortunate coincidence. In response to all this I reminded Mr. Houck that Idaho statute still required a response to my PRR and that I didn’t think a phone call would satisfy this requirement. I suggested he place what he just told me in an email as a way to satisfy the requirements of state statute. To my chagrin he did just that, creating a written record of what he had just told me on our phone call!
On July 5th, 2022 I submitted a FOIA request to DHS/CISA requesting any PRRs transmitted via their local fusion center from the Idaho Secretary of State’s office. On July 15th, 2022 DHS/CISA responded to my FOIA request with the following:
“…we determined that the information you are seeking is not under the purview of DHS. Requests for the records you are seeking should be made to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office.”
In essence DHS/CISA is saying they don’t have the PRRs, they didn’t make them classified and I needed to request them from the Idaho Secretary of State’s office.
On August 3rd, 2022 I forwarded DHS/CISA’s FOIA response to Chief Deputy Secretary of State Houck informing him I intended to resubmit my PRR. I also offered to contact DHS/CISA for further clarification if he would give me the name of the DHS/CISA contact who received the transmitted PRRs. Mr. Houck never replied to this email.
On November 8th, 2022 Mr. Phil McGrane was elected as Idaho’s new Secretary of State. I had the opportunity to visit with Mr. McGrane during the run-up to the mid-term election and found him friendly and knowledgeable. I believed Mr. Houck’s departure and Secretary of State McGrane’s new leadership in the Secretary of State’s office presented the perfect opportunity to learn the truth about the August 24th , 2021 email.
On January 13th, 2023 I re-submitted my PRR to the Secretary of State’s office requesting the PRRs referred to by the August 24th, 2021 email. In the response I learned that the staff member who originally sent the email was still working in the Secretary of State’s office, and the only PRRs she was emailed in relation to the chilling email she sent out to the county clerks on August 24th, 2021 were mine.
On January 30th, 2023 I submitted a new PRR to the Secretary of State’s office requesting all PRRs transmitted to DHS/CISA via the local fusion center and received the following response: “The Secretary of State’s Office does not have any records responsive to your request.”
On January 31st, 2023 I submitted a PRR to the Secretary of State’s office requesting all training and policy materials used in the handling of classified documents in the Idaho Secretary of State’s office. They once again responded as follows: “The Secretary of State’s Office does not have any records responsive to your request.”
The bottom line is that former Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck lied in order to deny a legally valid Public Records Request. There is no evidence of multiple county PRRs requesting deceased voters list. The email sent state wide to chill PRR responses from county clerks was the result of my PRRs. There is no record that PRRs related to the email in question were transmitted to DHS/CISA and the Idaho Secretary of State’s office has no procedures to handling classified data. The whole affair was a lie to deny my public records request.
It is important to note that all this took place under Denny’s tenure as Idaho Secretary of State and should not reflect on Secretary of State Phil McGrane’s current leadership of the office. Under Secretary of State McGrane, the Secretary of State’s office was very responsive to my PRRs and Secretary McGrane called me personally to explain his office’s responses to my PRRs. It is almost certain that Mr. Houck will never be held accountable for his lies or unlawful denial of my PRR, but I appreciate Secretary McGrane and his office staff letting me know the truth about what happened.
Why does this matter? Readers who follow my Op-Eds know I am a champion of Idaho’s county clerks because they are the heroes who have kept our elections clean. Other states are moving to centralized voting centers which will move the administration of elections away from precincts and counties and to the Secretary of State’s office. I believe this trend will eventually come to Idaho, and when it does, it will centralize more control of our elections in the Secretary of State’s office. Even if the lies and cover-ups have ended with the election of Secretary of State McGrane, my story illustrates the danger of centralizing control of our elections where one corrupt election official could affect the entire state (as opposed to just one county). As citizens we must stay vigilant and oppose any move that gives the Secretary of State’s office central authority over the administration of our elections. It is much better for election integrity for our 44 elected county clerks to maintain distributed control of our state’s election system.
This Op-Ed was submitted by Joseph Gish. Op-Eds do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of those at the Idaho Dispatch.
Tags: 1993 Voter Registration Act, Chad Houck, Chief Deputy Secretary of State, County Clerk, Election Integrity, FOIA, House Bill 694, Idaho Secretary of State, Lawerence Denney, Lawrence Denney, Phil McGrane, Priscilla Giddings, PRR, Public Records Request, Secretary of State, Voter Rolls
3 thoughts on “Op-Ed: The Lies of Former Chief Deputy Secretary of State Illustrate the Importance of Idaho’s County Clerks”
Ada County should have had a full audit in 2020. The absentee ballot numbers don’t make sense.
Thank you, Mr. Gish, for being a champion of fair and open elections. We saw in 2020 what happens when a State – and by virtue a Nation – embraces mail-in voting, absentee voting, vote harvesting, and electronic curation of voting. You get fraud and the Banana Republic upon which such fraud is then propagated.
County Clerks and any other County positions should be voted in and the candidate known as a resident of the county. No appointments. Moeena Eckman