Here’s why watchdogs are worried about all that personal data the Trump election panel wants

Here’s why watchdogs are worried about all that personal data the Trump election panel wants
A poll worker holds a voting activation card on Election Day 2016.
Source: Rogelio V. Solis/AP
A poll worker holds a voting activation card on Election Day 2016.
Source: Rogelio V. Solis/AP

On its face, the idea of a commission to study the integrity of America’s election system might seem sensible.

Just Monday, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found nearly half of the U.S. public believes that elections are fair “not at all” or “not very much.”

Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt, who served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under former President Barack Obama, said the commission’s vague mission is part of why it’s so disturbing.

When Kansas secretary of state and panel co-chair Kris Kobach requests not just enrollment information, but specifics on party affiliation and home addresses, “Nobody really knows why he’s asking,” Levitt said in a phone interview.

“He hasn’t told us, because the commission hasn’t even met yet. So he’s way out in front of himself just in terms of process,” he continued. “This is not a good way to do your homework.”

The bipartisan commission, which is also chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, doesn’t have its first in-person meeting until July 19.

But Levitt, like others who have watched Kobach’s work in the area of prosecuting voter fraud, said he has a good inkling of what’s ultimately in store: Kobach, Levitt said, “already knows what he wants to recommend because he’s had certain things on his to-do list since day one of the new administration.”

“The commission is just window dressing.”

The short answer: Kobach, who has not responded to numerous phone and email requests for comment, wants to amend the 1993 motor-voter law, Levitt said.

The entire purpose of that law was to make it easier for people to register to vote — something even one of Kobach’s fellow election panel members, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, said in a phone interview Kobach has fought against.

Kobach perhaps unintentionally clued the public into what he had in mind when he was photographed entering a meeting with Trump in November, armed with documents detailing some of his plans.

Trump meets with Kobach in Bedminster, New Jersey shortly after the November election.
Source: Don Emmert/Getty Images

Kobach, who spent Monday, in part, tweeting about the Second Amendment in relation to a murder at a New York City hospital and defending campus carry laws, has not responded to questions about the election integrity panel’s goals.

But critics say the commission is a front to play out the president’s unfounded allegations of widespread fraud — and its attempted data collection, if fulfilled, could put Americans’ privacy at risk and lead to voter roll purges that benefit the administration.

In an email late Monday night, a White House spokesperson told Mic that “President Trump has charged this commission with producing a set of recommendations to increase the American people’s confidence in our election system.”

The spokesperson continued, “The Commission has asked for voter rolls from publicly available data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia which can be submitted to federally secure systems.” 

The request “is the beginning of a fact-finding process that will help ensure the purity and transparency of our electoral process,” the official said. “Failing to comply, at a minimum, diminishes the process that will secure the sanctity of the individual vote and our democracy.”

The commission, which the president has openly labeled a “voter fraud panel,” has perhaps caused the greatest uproar with its request for voters’ partial Social Security numbers.

In an editorial, the Washington Post called the very idea “preposterous.”

(It’s worth noting that the last four digits of a Social Security number can ostensibly be used to set apart voters who share the same name. As Levitt noted, even that’s not 100% reliable: There are more than 214 million people registered to vote, per the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and only around 10,000 possible four-digit combinations.)

There are other requests that give pause individually — not to mention the potential overarching danger of a data breach in a system that’s already notoriously believed to have been preyed upon by hackers.

“He’s asked for the name and home address of every member of the military who’s on the voter rolls. That would become instantly public,” Levitt said.

“I want to be really careful. I don’t want to scare people. He’s not going to get that information, because the states aren’t going to give it to him. But the fact that he asked for it gives you a sense of how ludicrous the endeavor is.”

Observers have also questioned why Kobach’s original information request, which he himself has admitted he can’t completely fulfill under Kansas law, also seeks details on Americans’ party affiliation and voting history.

All this adds up to what people like Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler called a potential chilling effect on voter participation — conceivably even if the integrity panel doesn’t root out a single case of fraud. (Americans have seen a version of that movie recently: As Reuters reported, just a Trump threat of separating undocumented mothers and children led to a spectacular drop in attempted illegal Mexico border crossings.)

Schedler, a Republican, posted on Facebook on Monday in response to the Kobach request that “you’re not going to play politics with Louisiana’s voter data, and if you are, then you can purchase the limited public information available by law, to any candidate running for office. That’s it.”

On the possible fear factor tied to such a large data request, Schedler wrote:

The release of private information creates a tremendous breach of trust with voters who work hard to protect themselves against identity fraud. That’s why it is protected by six federal laws and two state laws. This commission needs to understand clearly, disclosure of such sensitive information is more likely to diminish voter participation rather than foster it.

Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state and Army veteran who now runs the advocacy group Let America Vote, has been outspoken about the Pence-Kobach commission on television and social media.

In a recent CNN exchange with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who challenged Kander on how much he did to identify potential voter fraud in Missouri, he said the real purpose of the panel’s request is simply to “figure out who you voted for so they can try and determine whether or not to push you off the voter rolls.”

Kander pointed out on Twitter that he’d heard from people who planned to de-register as voters just to keep their private information from ending up in some giant government file:

It’s not immediately clear how many people might actually pull their voter registrations as a result of the election integrity panel’s data requests, which are being fulfilled by some states, although more are refusing to comply in what’s become something of a stunning national rebellion.

What, by nearly every reported academic measure, does seem to be clear is that the Pence-Kobach panel is simply not likely to find evidence of widespread voter fraud — because it simply doesn’t exist.

Daniel Jacobson, a White House attorney during the Obama administration, helped file two Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law complaints against Kobach. Those complaints ask the federal Office of Special Counsel and Office of Government Ethics to examine whether Kobach ran afoul of the law by using his election panel work to promote his run for governor.

“Every American should be concerned, and in my view outraged, when politicians play games with our right to vote,” Jacobson said in an interview. “Our elected leaders should win because they have the best ideas, not because they mess around with the voting rights of the other side.”

July 4, 10:10 a.m.: This story has been updated.

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Celeste Katz

Celeste Katz is senior political correspondent at Mic, covering national politics. She is based in New York and can be reached at celeste@mic.com.

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