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At least a dozen states pushed back against a broad request from the White House commission on voter fraud. The states included Indiana, whose secretary of state sits on the commission. The requested information has raised questions about the ways it can be used.
At least a dozen states are already pushing back against a request by President Donald Trump’s voter-fraud commission to hand over registered voters’ personal information to make public.
The bipartisan Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, sent a letter to all 50 states on Wednesday seeking registered voters’ names, addresses, dates of birth, partial Social Security numbers, and party registration.
It also asked for a decade’s worth of voter history, information on felony convictions, and whether they have registered in more than one state. The commission said all voter data submitted by the states would be made public, and the Justice Department sent a separate letter asking states to reveal how they maintain their voter rolls.
At least 12 secretaries of state – from Indiana, California, Kentucky, Virginia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Minnesota, Utah, Oklahoma, New York, Tennessee and New Mexico – have so far declined to hand over information that is not already publicly available.
Indiana’s secretary of state, Connie Lawson, sits on the commission. But she said in a statement that “Indiana law doesn’t permit the Secretary of State to provide the personal information requested by Secretary Kobach.” Only certain voter information, she said, is available to the public under Indiana law: name, address, and congressional district assignment.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement that handing over the requested information would “legitimize the false and already debunked claims of massive voter fraud by the President, the Vice President, and Mr. Kobach.”
“I will not provide sensitive voter information to a commission that has already inaccurately passed judgment that millions of Californians voted illegally,” Padilla said Thursday.
Trump vowed to investigate voter fraud just days after taking office, repeating false claims that millions of illegal ballots were cast in the presidential election. There is no evidence to support Trump’s repeated assertion that he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in November’s election because people voted illegally, independent experts and analysts have said.
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said in a statement that “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.”
“The president created his election commission based on the false notion that ‘voter fraud’ is a widespread issue – it is not,” Grimes said. “Indeed, despite bipartisan objections and a lack of authority, the president has repeatedly spread the lie that 3-5 million illegal votes were cast in the last election.”
States are already wary of accepting federal help when it comes to voting and election systems. States pushed back when the Department of Homeland Security wanted to designate their voter systems as “critical infrastructure” before the election last year, and are still reluctant to allow the government to conduct a complete digital forensics analysis of the voting machines to see if they were tampered with.
‘Serious privacy concerns’ and ‘laying the groundwork for voter suppression’
Election law and voter-fraud experts broadly agree that the commission’s request is not only baseless, but an infringement on privacy and states’ rights.
“Having all of this information raises serious privacy concerns,” wrote Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. “Will the information be kept securely, or is it at risk of being hacked for identity theft purposes? Will it be used by the Trump campaign and other political officials for political purposes? How secure will this be?”
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation who is writing a book on the history of voting rights, wrote Friday that “never before has a White House asked for such broad data on voters, and it could be easily manipulated by Trump’s commission.”
Berman said the request could be a pretext to make it harder to register to vote, leading to widespread voter suppression efforts.
“Kobach has a very well-documented record of making wildly misleading claims about voter fraud and enacting policies that sharply limit access to the ballot in his home state of Kansas,” he wrote. “He’s been sued four times by the ACLU for voter suppression and was sanctioned by a federal court last week for ‘deceptive conduct and lack of candor.'”
Vanita Gupta, who ran the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department during the Obama administration and now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, agreed that Pence and Kobach appeared to be “laying the groundwork for voter suppression.”
“The integrity of our elections is indeed under assault – just not in the way Trump claims,” she tweeted Thursday.
A ‘gold mine’ of voter information
There is also the question of whether making this personal information, including Social Security numbers and military status, publicly available in one place risks making it more vulnerable to manipulation and misuse by adversaries.
Russian hackers targeted election systems in at least 21 states last year, top DHS official Jeanette Manfra told the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month. The hackers probed election infrastructure and successfully infiltrated a “small number of networks,” said Sam Liles, the DHS’s top cyber official.
The hackers stole voter-data information, which they could then use “in a variety of ways,” said top FBI counterintelligence official Bill Priestap, including to affect future elections, target individual voters, and determine whether the data is something they can manipulate going forward.
When a data-analytics firm hired by the Republican National Committee last year to gather political information about US voters accidentally leaked the sensitive personal details of roughly 198 million citizens earlier this month, cybersecurity experts called it “the motherlode of all leaks” and a “goldmine” for anyone looking to target and manipulate voters.
That information did not even include highly sensitive information like Social Security numbers that the administration now wants to gather and, apparently, make publicly available.
“It’s just shocking,” Myrna Pérez, an expert on voting rights and election administration at Brennan Center for Justice, told Mother Jones on Friday, “that in a period where we know that there’s a risk that we have foreign interference and foreign attacks on our registration systems, that somebody thinks it’s a good idea to take the voter registration rolls in all 50 states and put them all together in one place.”