In an age of increasing numbers of troubling events, one of the most troubling to date has arisen just before, ironically, Independence Day. On March 11th, Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. This body was empowered to “promote fair and honest Federal elections,” and investigate allegations of widespread voter fraud, a largely fictional phenomenon promulgated by the Republican Party and which Trump claimed, without evidence, had resulted in 3-5 million fraudulent votes by illegal immigrants for his opponent Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. As Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the time, the commission would review policies and practices that enhance or undermine confidence in the integrity of federal elections, including improper registrations, improper voting, fraudulent registrations, fraudulent voting and voting suppression. The commission would focus on the 2016 general election as well as systemic issues over the years.
Trump appointed as vice-chair of the commission Kris Kobach, the former Kansas Secretary of State. This is a deeply ironic choice. Kobach has been dogged at investigating and prosecuting cases of supposed voter fraud in Kansas, and at claiming widespread voter fraud across the nation, but he is noted for presenting these claims without any real evidence. Furthermore, Kobach himself was recently fined $1000 by a federal judge for presenting misleading information in a voting-related lawsuit. In short, this commission has been tainted from the very beginning.
On Wednesday, June 28th, Kobach launched the commission’s work with an ominous action. He sent a letter to the officials in charge of elections in all 50 states and the District of Columbia asking “that you provide to the Commission the publicly-available voter roll data for [name of state], including, if publicly available under the laws of your state, the full first and last names of all registrants, middle names or initials if available, addresses, dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information.” This is an unprecedented request, and it has seriously troubling implications for the future integrity of our democracy.
The commission is asking states to turn over this information without providing details on who will have access to it (aside from an airy generality that the information will be made publicly available) or exactly what will be done with it. It is also asking for this information without having in place any apparent security or access protocols that will ensure its privacy and confidentiality. Indeed, Kobach suggested that states could send this information via highly insecure email!
It is true that states are required to maintain varying levels of information on their voter rolls, and that voter rolls are technically public records. However, the extent of their public availability varies from state to state. For example, North Carolina makes its voter rolls available for free download, whereas Alabama charges a high fee for its own information, and Virginia only releases its voter rolls to formal campaigns and political candidates. The commission, on the other hand, is proposing, essentially, to create a national voter list accessible for free to anyone, and the consequences of this are potentially dire.
Voter rights groups point out that Kobach is championing the use of Crosscheck, a multistate database of voter registration information that authorities use to check whether voters are registered in two states. Researchers have shown that the system is highly flawed, however, and could result in massive errors that lead to unlawful purging of voters. Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said that Kobach’s Crosscheck program has been repeatedly shown to be ineffective and to produce false matches. In addition, a recent study by a group of political scientists at Stanford published earlier this year found that Crosscheck highlighted 200 false matches for every one true double vote. “I have every reason to think that given the shoddy work that Mr. Kobach has done in this area in the past that this is going to be yet another boondoggle and a propaganda tool that tries to inflate the problem of double registration beyond what it actually is,” Ho said.
Trump’s commission is a prime example of the misuses to which unscrupulous people in power and their followers may put information. We have no way of knowing how the government might use this vital information, except that judging by Trump’s and Kobach’s previous statements and history, it is likely they will pursue nonexistent cases of voter fraud, mainly against immigrants and minority voters. Furthermore, as Myrna Perez of New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice asks, “Why does a random member of the public . . . need to know when you last voted and what your political party is?…I think that access to this data in the wrong hands could always leave the opportunity for mischief. In this particular instance, I’m worried about harassment as well.” States are “stewards of [this] public information,” Perez said. “Once it leaves their hands in this way, there’s no telling who’s going to get it, and how, and what they’re using it for.”
As of this writing, forty-one states have refused to turn over their voter information to the commission. Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill added that Kobach “has a lengthy record of illegally disenfranchising eligible voters in Kansas” and that “given Secretary Kobach’s history we find it very difficult to have confidence in the work of this Commission.” Let us hope that more states will follow these examples and work to ensure the integrity of their electoral systems – without which democracy is impossible – preserve the privacy of their electorates, and resist Republican attempts to solve a problem that exists almost entirely in the minds of Republicans.