Secretaries of state are resisting White House requests for voter data

Secretaries of state are resisting White House requests for voter data
A man sits with his dog outside a polling station after voting in Los Angeles on Nov. 8. Damian Dovarganes/AP
A man sits with his dog outside a polling station after voting in Los Angeles on Nov. 8. Damian Dovarganes/AP

Secretaries of state are pushing back at a new presidential commission’s demands for detailed personal information on American voters.

This week, Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who is co-chairing the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity with Vice President Mike Pence, asked his counterparts for a slew of information on every state’s voters, from names to partial social security numbers.

The commission is charged with examining “vulnerabilities in voting systems” that could lead to fraud, but critics say they see something far more nefarious brewing behind the massive national data request.

Even Connie Lawson, secretary of state in Pence’s own home state of Indiana and a member of the integrity panel, says she won’t comply with the commission’s ask.

“Indiana law doesn’t permit the secretary of state to provide the personal information requested by Secretary Kobach,” Lawson said in a statement posted online Friday. “Under Indiana public records laws, certain voter info is available to the public, the media and any other person who requested the information for non-commercial purposes. The information publicly available is name, address and congressional district assignment.”

And in a statement to reporters, Andrew Cuomo, governor of Trump’s home state of New York, said he wouldn’t be giving the panel what it wants either:

The electoral process is sacred and New York law has strong safeguards in place to prevent sharing of sensitive voter data and harassment against those who exercise their right to vote. New York refuses to perpetuate the myth voter fraud played a role in our election. We will not be complying with this request and I encourage the Election Commission to work on issues of vital importance to voters, including ballot access, rather than focus on debunked theories of voter fraud.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said in a statement that she does not “intend to release Kentuckians’ sensitive personal data to the federal government” on her state’s 3.2 million registered voters.

Grimes, the nation’s youngest female secretary of state, said Trump created the commission “based on the false notion that ‘voter fraud’ is a widespread issue.” She went on to chastise the president for lying about millions of illegal ballots cast in 2016.

“Indeed, despite bipartisan objections and a lack of authority, the president has repeatedly spread the lie that 3 to 5 million illegal votes were cast in the last election,” she said. “Kentucky will not aid a commission that is at best a waste of taxpayer money and at worst an attempt to legitimize voter suppression efforts across the country.”

Friday, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said on his website that he wouldn’t be giving the commission “sensitive” voter information.

“I have serious doubts about the commission’s credibility and trustworthiness,” Simon wrote, adding that he fears the panel could become “a partisan tool to shut out millions of eligible American voters.”

Brian McNiff, spokesman for Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, told Commonwealth magazine that their office, too, received the letter Kobach sent to state officials who run elections.

McNiff’s response: “They’re not going to get it. It’s not a public record.”

In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe scoffed on his website that “the only irregularity in the 2016 presidential election centered around Russian tampering, a finding that has been confirmed by 17 of our intelligence agencies and sworn testimony delivered to several congressional committees.”

With statewide elections months away, he said, “I’m not going to divert resources that could potentially compromise that important work to enable this politically motivated and silly posturing.”

Officials in other states, including Connecticut, Washington and Vermont, said they would partially comply with the panel’s request by providing certain public voter information.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has also said he “will not provide sensitive voter information to a commission that has already inaccurately passed judgment that millions of Californians voted illegally.”

Padilla said his state’s participation “would only serve to legitimize the false and already debunked claims of massive voter fraud made by the president, the vice president, and Mr. Kobach.”

The Kobach request that states send huge amounts of voter information to the panel has also raised questions because of his support for a controversial voter database system called Crosscheck.

According to the Washington Post, “Kobach has said he’s interested in using a similar process to compare state voter roll data to a federal database of legal immigrants, creating what Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, calls ‘Crosscheck on steroids.’”

Kobach’s office has not responded to repeated requests for comment, although he told the Kansas City Star that personal voter data collected by the integrity panel “would be hosted on a secure server run by the federal government and not disclosed to the public.”

The Star also reported Friday afternoon that Kobach himself would not release the very Social Security information on Kansas voters that he had asked other states to provide: “In Kansas, the Social Security number is not publicly available,” the newspaper quoted Kobach as saying. “Every state receives the same letter but we’re not asking for it if it’s not publicly available.”

The last four digits of Social Security numbers are used in data crunching to set apart different voters who have the same name.

North Carolina’s Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement said it would provide some of the voter data requested, but not “Social Security numbers, dates of birth or driver license numbers, which are confidential under certain state and federal laws.”

“There is no justification for this giant fishing expedition,” League of Women Voters President Chris Carson said in a statement. “The commission itself is a distraction from the real issue of voter suppression, and that efforts to ‘investigate voter fraud’ threaten our most fundamental voting rights.”

Carson continued:

This most recent move by Mr. Kobach is an indicator that the so-called Election ‘Integrity’ Commission is not interested in facts, but false accusations and dangerous policy recommendations. State laws govern the release of voter registration information, and, at a minimum, election officials must follow those laws before releasing data. The League stands with those state leaders who have already come out to support their voters and refuse these requests from Mr. Kobach and the EIC.

The American Civil Liberties Union also jumped into the fray with a flashback Friday tweetstorm about a critique of Kobach it released in May.

Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, has been pounding out reams of criticism of the new Pence-Kobach commission on his Election Law Blog. This week, he took particular aim at the appointment of the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky to the panel.

Hasen called the appointment of von Spakovsky, who heads the conservative think tank’s Election Law Reform Initiative, “a big middle finger from the president to those who are serious about fixing problems with our elections.”

Von Spakovsky, who Hasen named “the country’s worst vote suppressor,” couldn’t be immediately reached for comment Friday.

Complicating matters further, ProPublica noted this week that the Justice Department also sent a letter to 44 states “requesting information on the maintenance of their voter rolls,” suggesting the federal search for election information is bigger than the panel alone.

Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, warned in an emailed statement that secretaries of states “need to have frank conversations with their lawyers about the privacy and other implications of complying with Kobach’s extensive request.”

Voters, Pérez said, “trust that states will safeguard their information when they register to vote, and to break that bond could damage voters’ confidence and their rights.” 

June 30, 2017, 2:57 p.m.: This story has been updated.