In Depth: Public records are a powerful tool for transparency, but they are also being used to bolster lies about elections
They started searching for her in late January.
“Where’s CELIA NABOR?” one member of the angry online mob wrote. “Find her,” another wrote. Track her phone, credit cards, social security number, and social media, others suggested. It was time for her to “face the music.” “COULD SHE BE AT HOME????” someone wrote, posting her address.
And then, that same night, after 2 a.m., someone started banging on Celia Nabor’s door.
She lay frozen in bed in her suburban Phoenix neighborhood, terrified, wondering if one of her online harassers had come to follow through on the threats. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the pounding stopped.
Nabor never found out who knocked on her door that night. What she did know was that the trouble had started earlier that week. On Jan. 30, GOP activists began spreading false information about her, based partly on documents acquired through records requests searching for fraud in Maricopa County’s elections, where Nabor helped oversee early voting.
They said Nabor was dodging a request to answer questions, prompting others to claim she had helped the county steal the election for Democrats. But that wasn’t true.
We The People AZ Alliance — a Phoenix-based political action committee funded primarily by Patrick Byrne and his organization The America Project — employed what’s become a familiar playbook among allies of former President Donald Trump: Barrage local election offices with public records requests, then twist real records to make routine actions seem suspicious.
This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.
The organization dug into Nabor’s work, asking for copies of all of her texts and her emails. They asked for information on how she and the employees under her performed their jobs and whether they were disciplined. They wanted protocols and contractor names and contracts and more.
Extensive requests such as these are a complex piece of the ballooning number of public records requests to election offices across the country, according to Votebeat’s review of hundreds of public records requests and logs.
Records requests are a powerful tool for greater government transparency, but Votebeat found they are also being used to bolster lies about elections and push more restrictive voting laws, challenge the outcome of elections in court, and, in the most extreme cases, fuel threats that upend people’s lives.
Local election officials across the country have told Votebeat they are running out of resources as they try not only to process the onslaught of public records requests but also combat the misinformation that follows. They used to get a few requests a year. Now — hundreds.
Maricopa County, Arizona, went from receiving 100 election-related records requests in 2019 to nearly 12 times that in 2022.
In Fulton County, Georgia — already the recipient of nearly 200 requests in 2020 — the number increased to 326 by 2022. Requests quadrupled to more than 1,200 in Harris County, and ballooned by sevenfold in Wake County, N.C.
“It has consumed us,” said Olivia McCall, elections director in Wake County, which had to increase the county’s budget to hire someone just to process the incoming requests.
Samantha Shepherd, who processes the requests for Loudoun County, Virginia, was so slammed last year she couldn’t do her usual voter outreach activities, such as visiting schools and nursing homes.
Votebeat called Shelby Busch, We The People’s co-founder, and the organization’s lawyer, Bryan Blehm, to request an interview. Busch did not respond to a voicemail. Blehm hung up on a reporter after he was told about the story.
Votebeat then sent an email to Busch and Blehm requesting responses to specific questions and detailed findings for this article, and Blehm declined to respond unless we met in person for “a brief chat,” which wasn’t possible. Votebeat again offered to talk by phone or video, but Blehm declined.
A focus on fraudulent signatures
Celia Nabor filled a critical position for Maricopa County’s elections.
Most people in the county — as well as statewide — vote by mail, and Nabor oversaw the process for verifying that mail-in ballots were cast by the correct registered voter, including the review of voters’ signatures on the ballot envelopes.
We The People has repeatedly claimed, without definitive proof, that this process is riddled with fraud.
The political action committee, led by Shelby Busch and Steve Robinson, has been pushing the unproven election fraud claims since shortly after the 2020 election, and has been claiming to have found widespread fraud within 2020’s voter signature review process since shortly before the 2022 election.
The organization is also one of the most prolific filers of election-related public records requests in the county. The group filed about 30 requests in the six months after the 2022 election alone and has filed more than a dozen specifically for signature verification-related records, according to county records.
The organization has made a few different claims about Nabor, including that she dodged their request to depose her about workers that had been disciplined — which is false — and that she pressured workers to approve fraudulent signatures — a claim Nabor’s attorney denies.
Votebeat has reconstructed what happened to Nabor as a result of We The People’s claims via internal county communications received through a public records request, text messages she sent at the time that were later shared by her attorney, interviews with two people familiar with the chain of events, and statements made on her behalf by her attorney.
It started before the midterm election, when We The People claimed that “sources close to the 2022 primary election” said Nabor had told them that employees working on the 2020 election had been disciplined for failing to verify signatures, according to a court record. In September 2022, Busch filed a public records request to the county Recorder’s Office asking for the names of all employees who had verified the signatures for the last two-and-a-half years, including all communication surrounding their hiring and any discipline.
On Nov. 3, We The People took the county to court seeking the records.
Then, Republican Kari Lake lost her bid for governor. She used We The People’s claims about fraudulent voter signatures in 2020 to claim that fraudulent signatures were what, in part, led to her loss against Democrat Katie Hobbs, and We The People started filing records requests to see if they could prove it.
Front and center in their quest was Nabor. We The People wanted to talk to her.
But she was already gone.
A wave of document demands takes a toll
Many election officials across the country have told Votebeat they have some version of We The People: local advocacy groups that file records requests, sometimes spreading bad information as they go. They are also now routinely hit with waves of records requests when calls to file them take off among Trump allies.
In the summer of 2022, for example, election officials across the country were asked for a complicated dataset called a cast vote record, which tallies every vote cast on every ballot, after Mike Lindell encouraged his fans to request them.
In Maricopa County, along with the significant increase in numbers of requests, the Recorder’s Office is also seeing more requests for what it considers “extensive information” — requests that typically take longer than 30 days to process, such as requests for internal conversations and requests requiring redactions. It’s forced staff to work overtime, and pushed the county to start developing an automated system to make things go faster.
County Recorder Stephen Richer said “one man’s weaponization is the other man’s legitimate request, but certainly from my standpoint, many of these are not with a productive end in mind.” He said that’s especially true for the requests targeting specific employees.
Maricopa County eventually responded to We The People’s request for employee records, but redacted the names of the employees. While the county used to release the names of temporary election workers, this policy changed for the 2022 election. Richer said that was a conscious choice to protect the safety of temporary employees.
Richer said that while turnover wasn’t too bad in 2021 or 2022, since the November election many good employees — including Nabor — have left. The misinformation and threats, he said, are contributing to the exodus.
Ben Ginsberg, a prominent Republican lawyer who helps connect election officials with legal representation for harassment cases, said he isn’t sure what the goal is.
“There is no positive end game result for them in the hassling of election officials,” he said. “They will pay a price if their candidates ever win in a system they have tried to make as un-credible as possible.”
Rey Valenzuela, Maricopa County’s director of early voting and Nabor’s former supervisor, said in an interview that in his 33 years of election work, he’s never seen this kind of vitriol. He worries about the toll it is taking on his staff, and watches as some leave for other occupations and others stay but worry about their safety. They ask him questions, he said, like whether there are going to be armed guards and metal detectors for the next election.
“We know that they are concerned,” he said.
A planned departure, portrayed as a coverup
During the midterm election, Nabor’s family member was ill, and Nabor was working long hours. Sixteen hours, some days. She had decided she wanted a different job — one that would allow her to spend less time at work and more time with family, her lawyer Tom Ryan said.
So, in mid-November, she told Valenzuela she was planning to resign, Ryan said.
The county tried to keep her. Valenzuela said that Nabor had improved the county’s processes significantly, and her performance reviews, obtained by Votebeat, show she consistently surpassed expectations (“As has become the norm for Celia,” Valenzuela wrote in June 2022, “she has EXCELLED.”)
Still, Valenzuela said, he understood why she wanted to go.
On Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving, Nabor formally gave Valenzuela her resignation letter, writing it was her “greatest professional honor to serve in this role.”
During her last week, she received an outpouring of support from her subordinates and her bosses. “You’re the best boss I ever had,” one person texted her. “You have changed us all for the better,” wrote another.
“We love you lots,” Richer wrote, “and you’ll always be our family.”
County records show her last day was Dec. 9. Far from hiding, she simply took a different job.
We The People would falsely paint this routine departure as part of a coverup.
‘Nowhere to be found’
The first time anyone said Nabor’s name at a public meeting was in late January.
The legislative session had begun and Busch, one of the leaders of We The People AZ Alliance, was invited to speak on Jan. 23 to the Senate Elections committee, chaired by state Sen. Wendy Rogers.
She told the senators that the math “just doesn’t add up.” County workers, she claimed, approved signatures much too quickly for the process to be legitimate.
That day, The America Project contributed $120,000 to We The People, according to campaign finance records. The organization and Byrne had already contributed $132,000, amounting to more than half the money the PAC has raised since January 2021. Busch and Robinson have paid themselves about $80,000 of that, and about $11,000 went to Chris Handsel — the group’s data and technology director, who helped them analyze data for Lake’s case.
Busch was back for more on Jan. 30, and this time she told senators that temporary county election workers — witnesses for Lake in her trial — told Lake’s lawyer that county officials had pressured them to approve signatures they had already rejected. Busch did not offer evidence to support this claim.
Then, she named Nabor.
She said her organization’s attorney had asked the County Attorney’s Office to depose Nabor in mid-December, but that Nabor had resigned from the county “the day after our attorney followed up on the deposition request.”
That was false.
Nabor gave her written resignation on Nov. 25 and her last day was Dec. 9. The first time Blehm asked to speak to Nabor was on Dec. 20, when he approached a county attorney, Joseph La Rue, during ballot inspection for Lake’s initial election contest trial. Blehm followed up in writing in mid-January, according to emails Blehm sent to the county as well as La Rue’s account of the requests.
To this day, no one has contacted Nabor to depose her or ask her for a witness statement, Ryan said.
Two days after the committee hearing, on Feb. 1, a social media account that appears to be associated with Lake’s campaign posted the video of Busch speaking and wrote that Nabor was “nowhere to be found.”
The next day, Jordan Conradson — a writer for conspiracy website The Gateway Pundit who once posed in a photo as part of the Lake team, including Busch — published a story: “WTH? Maricopa County Assistant Election Director Disappeared After Deposition Request Regarding Fraudulent Signature Verification.”
Witnesses name Nabor
On Feb. 3, the day after the Gateway Pundit published the story, a Gab user posted Nabor’s address. Another responded, “BANG BANG!” That’s the night Nabor woke up to banging on her front door.
The Recorder’s Office would eventually report the Gab post with her address on it to the FBI. Ryan said he has also reported other threats Nabor received to law enforcement agencies.
Blehm, the lawyer for both Kari Lake and We The People who was sanctioned for one claim made in the Lake case, has repeatedly posted about Nabor on X, formerly Twitter, and Telegram. In one post, on Feb. 4, he asked people to contact him “with any information leading to her whereabouts.” In another, in April, he posted two photos of Nabor and said that “she cannot be located.” In another, he wrote that it “takes a corrosive substance to wash away the corruption Celia Nabor and her cohorts brought to signature verification in order to overthrow a presidential election.”
By early May, the harassment had died down a bit. The reprieve was short lived.
That month, Kari Lake got a new trial for her initial election contest, which had used We The People’s research to claim tens of thousands of signatures were fraudulent.
In court, Lake used new data We The People had acquired from a records request to claim signature verification was done too quickly to tell whether the signatures were real, and also brought forward the three temporary employees who worked under Nabor.
The first former employee to testify mentioned Nabor’s name, and said she felt pressure to approve signatures she had already rejected. She, and other employees, would contradict this claim when they also testified they’d repeatedly been instructed to exercise caution when approving signatures.
The judge dismissed the case, but that didn’t matter much for Nabor.
The activists keep digging
Nabor declined to talk for this story, saying she wanted to move on and not spur more intimidation.
Her attorney, Ryan, who said he volunteered to help her after seeing the threats she was facing, denies she pressured anyone to approve fraudulent signatures on ballots for Hobbs. He points out there would be no way for employees reviewing voter signatures to even know who the signees had voted for at the verification process — workers review the image of the ballot envelope before the ballot is opened.
Ryan said that Nabor is honorable, ethical, and hard-working, and “the only thing she is guilty of is doing her job to the best of her ability.” Nabor has been terrorized by the threats, he said. After the February door-knocking disturbance, she decided to move elsewhere to try to protect herself.
He wants those persecuting her to face consequences.
The U.S. Justice Department in a news conference in Phoenix a few weeks ago enewed its commitment to prosecuting threats against election officials, updating its tally to 12 charges brought in federal cases.
After hearing this, Ryan sent the threats against Nabor to the department for review.
He is hoping that the focus now moves on. But it might not.
On Feb. 14, We The People filed a request for every text message and email Nabor had sent as she helped manage early voting for the 2020 and 2022 election cycle. In response, the organization has so far received more than 3,400 pages showing her texts and emails, and the county isn’t done responding. It’s unclear what We The People plans to do with the messages.
Related court cases also linger. The one We The People filed over its records request for worker names and discipline records has not yet had a hearing.
In another lawsuit, Lake claims that the county should release a copy of all mail-in ballot envelopes from the midterm election. The county says the voter signatures are confidential under state law.
A judge recently granted a trial for the case.
It begins Thursday.
This article was co-published in partnership with The Guardian.
Freelance journalists Thy Vo, Matt Dempsey, and Hank Stephenson contributed research to this report.