Trump’s ‘voter integrity’ panel is a joke — and a serious threat (UPDATE)

In this staged photo op from November 2016, the papers visible under Kris Kobach’s arm are a deportation plan from the Department of Homeland Security. Yeah, let’s trust this guy with sensitive information about voters.

No doubt Donald Trump thought he had a winning issue for Republicans when he launched an idea for a bogus voter fraud panel.

After all, Republicans have been pushing false notions about voter fraud for years, using it as an excuse to pass voter ID laws and other forms of voter suppression that disproportionately affect minorities and other voters more inclined to vote for Democrats. And since Trump still can’t bring himself to admit that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes, all of those extra votes just had to be illegal, right?

Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach are heading what is billed as the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The commission is asking states for voters’ full names and addresses, political party registration, the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers, and voting history back to 2006.

Some officials say the request itself might be illegal, since it didn’t follow federal requirements governing requests for information from states. But there are consequential fears:

  • Such a large database of voter information could be ripe for hacking, with such data attractive both to criminals looking for easier access to identity theft and to foreign governments seeking large amounts of information for counterintelligence.
  • A recent letter from the Department of Justice demanding information about how and when voters are removed from voting rolls, coming on top of the voter panel request, is being interpreted as intimidation.
  • The plan to store the collected voter data on White House computers through Pence’s office, with aims to cross-check voter rolls, is almost guaranteed to reduce the number of voters. What could be a bigger conflict of interest for candidates running for re-election in 2020?
  • The panel itself, especially with incomplete data from states, will cherry-pick its way to developing policies with the aim of suppressing voting even more.

The DOJ letter is the latest wrinkle in the Trump administration’s war on voting. Veterans of the Obama administration’s Justice Department say the intent of the letter, asking 44 states to describe compliance with a section of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 specifying when voters are to be purged, might be to disenfranchise voters. According to a story by Huffington Post:

Former Justice Department officials say that while there’s nothing notable about seeking information about compliance with the NVRA, it is unusual for the department to send out such a broad inquiry to so many states seeking information. Such a wide probe could signal the department is broadly fishing for cases of non-compliance to bring suits aimed at purging the voter rolls.

“These two letters, sent on the same day, are highly suspect, and seem to confirm that the Trump administration is laying the groundwork to suppress the right to vote,” said Vanita Gupta, the CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former head of DOJ’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama. “It is not normal for the Department of Justice to ask for voting data from all states covered by the National Voter Registration Act. It’s likely that this is instead the beginning of an effort to force unwarranted voter purges.”

The real possibility of hacking into voter rolls is just as serious. Russian cyberattacks on voter databases and software systems reached at least 39 states. As former Homeland Security Sec. Michael Chertoff wrote in The Washington Post:

That’s why the commission’s call to assemble all this voter data in federal hands raises the question: What is the plan to protect it? We know that a database of personal information from all voting Americans would be attractive not only to adversaries seeking to affect voting but to criminals who could use the identifying information as a wedge into identity theft. We also know that foreign intelligence agencies seek large databases on Americans for intelligence and counterintelligence purposes. …

Would it be encrypted? Who would have administrative access to the data, and what restrictions would be placed on its use? Would those granted access be subject to security background investigations, and would their behavior be supervised to prevent the kind of insider theft that we saw with Edward Snowden or others who have released or sold sensitive data? What kinds of audit procedures would be in place? Finally, can the security risk of assembling so much tempting data in one place be mitigated by reducing and anonymizing the individual voter information being sought?

Of course, putting Kris Kobach in charge of election integrity is like leaving Bernie Madoff in charge of retiree investment accounts. The anti-immigration activist Kobach gained infamy trying to disenfranchise Kansas voters in his crusade against what he sees as voter fraud and “illegals voting.” You can see why he’s the sort of official after Donald Trump’s heart.

The Kansas Legislature gave Kobach’s office the power to prosecute voter fraud directly. Given his years of dubious claims, you’d think Kobach would be taking hundreds to court. In the end, there were only six prosecutions and exactly four successful cases, all against elderly voters, mostly involving voters who owned homes in two states (and voted in both), and none involving non-citizens.

The bogus charge about voter fraud is FAKE NEWS. Investigation after investigation of claims of voter fraud show that the problem is nearly nonexistent. A recent compilation of multiple investigations by The Washington Post determined that:

In general, there’s also a whole mountain of academic research into voter fraud, which is largely in agreement that it’s essentially a nonissue, and that isolated cases that may appear to be “fraud” are often attributable to mistakes, clerical errors or carelessness.

The current count of states refusing to comply or complying only partially with the commission’s request stands at 45. Pence’s home state of Indiana and Kobach’s home state of Kansas are on that list. Exactly TWO states, Missouri and Colorado, are fully complying with the request (both states have Republicans as the officials in charge of voter data). Some states have agreed to share the same information that is publicly available but will leave out identifying details such as the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

Many Republican officials in charge of state voter data point out that elections are the purview of the states, not the federal government. A Washington Post roundup of states’ reactions to the Kobach commission’s request showed that many cited the 10th Amendment is refusing to turn over the data. Some said the feds could have the data—for a fee. This came from Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, a Republican:

“The President’s Commission has quickly politicized its work by asking states for an incredible amount of voter data that I have, time and time again, refused to release,” Schedler explained in his statement. “My response to the Commission is, 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.”

Some states were diplomatic and polite in their refusal.

“While we remain committed to ensuring the integrity of and confidence in our electoral process, providing all of the information requested is not in the best interest of Arkansas voters. I continue to have confidence in the Secretary of State’s efforts to ensure that Arkansas’ elections are free and fair,” was the statement by Arkansas’ conservative Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, one of the latest to refuse the honor the complete request. The state did send some partial voter data.

Of course, some states’ answers were the equivalent of “Bite me.”

Mississippi Sec. of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, delivered his answer before he received the official request. He issued a statement saying, “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from.” Hosemann won a 2014 case against True the Vote—the group claiming to work on voting integrity but in reality seeking more ways to purge voters—on the grounds that state voter file information should be kept private and not shared with the federal government.

In Kentucky, Sec. of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, said the commission had been formed on a “sham premise” and told MSNBC: “There’s not enough bourbon here in Kentucky to make this request seem sensible. Not on my watch are we going to be releasing sensitive information that relates to the privacy of individuals.”

Trump harrumphed his way into a tweet, demanding that states comply. Grimes tweeted back:

If Donald Trump really wants information on American voters, maybe he should just ask the Russians.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on July 9, 2017.

UPDATE: Because of the numerous lawsuits filed against the voter panel, now the commission is asking states to hold off on sending any sensitive voter data while it awaits a ruling from a federal judge. According to a story in The Washington Post:

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a watchdog group, has asked U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to block the commission’s data request, arguing that the panel had not conducted the full privacy impact statement required by federal law for new government electronic data-collection systems.

Separately, two civil liberties groups filed lawsuits to prevent the commission from holding its first scheduled meeting, alleging that the panel had been working in secret and in violation of government regulations on public transparency.

So stay tuned.

NEW UPDATE: And just like that, on Jan. 3, 2018, Trump dissolved the commission, supposedly because too few states were cooperating with turning over voter information. So to go along with nonexistent voting fraud, we now have a nonexistent voter suppression commission.

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