The White House voting commission on Wednesday went into high gear, sending a letter to election officials in all 50 states asking for reams of voting data. On the same day, the U.S. Justice Department sent its own letter asking states for information on how they maintain their voter rolls.
The twin requests — which came the same day a prominent backer of strict voting laws was named to the commission — sparked immediate, widespread concern among experts and Democrats that the controversial panel plans to help states conduct purges of their voter lists based on deeply flawed data.
Some states said they would resist.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School and a widely respected authority on election administration who last year ran the voting section of the U.S. Justice Department, said the information the commission has asked for simply won’t allow it to find ineligible voters in a reliable way, and called the process a “sham.”
“He’s trying to build a movie set that looks like a real town,” Levitt told The Daily Democracy, referring to the panel’s vice chair and de facto director, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (pictured), a Republican.
Officials from California, Virginia, and Kentucky, all Democrats, said they’d refuse to cooperate with the White House commission’s request. Legal experts said the panel likely wouldn’t be able to compel them to hand the information over.
“I will not provide sensitive voter information to a commission that has already inaccurately passed judgment that millions of Californians voted illegally,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla in a statement. “California’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.”
“I have no intention of honoring this request,” said Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe in a statement. “Virginia conducts fair, honest and democratic elections, and there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in Virginia.”
“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,” said Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Alabama officials, by contrast, sounded downright giddy about the chance to be involved.
“The Alabama Secretary of State’s Office will not only reply to help Secretary Kobach and his team be successful, we will work tirelessly with him and his team to ensure the security of elections systems and the integrity of the elections process, not only in Alabama, but across the nation,” a spokesman for Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, said in a statement.
Several states, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Connecticut, said they’d provide publicly available data, such as names, addresses, voting record, and political affiliation, but would withhold confidential information, like Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and driver’s license numbers. Many states have restrictions on the use of such information.
Levitt said that having access to only a partial data set will prevent Kobach from creating a reliable process for identifying ineligible voters, likely leading to numerous false positives. Kobach has suggested he wants to compare the state rolls to a Department of Homeland Security database that contains the names of some non-citizens in the U.S.
“He’s not going to have any way of knowing if those John Smiths are the John Smiths on the voter files,” Levitt said. “It’s a second-grade version [of data analysis] that is guaranteed to fail as often as it succeeds, and he won’t know which are the failures and which are the successes.”
Levitt also noted that the commission’s letter to North Carolina had been sent to Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, even though she plays no role in running voting in her state.
“What that reveals is that [Kobach] has taken so little time and thought that he hasn’t even bothered to send this to the right people,” said Levitt. “Not particularly promising when he says, by the way, I’d like millions of records of data.”
Separately, Levitt wrote online that Kobach’s request may violate the 1874 Privacy Act.
“There are a number of substantive requirements for a body like the Kobach commission,” Levitt wrote. ” Those actually include specific limits on data that Kobach has asked for, like voting history and party affiliation.”
Other renowned election experts echoed Levitt’s concerns.
“Without [the confidential information], using only the public information regarding identity (usually name and address only), it is virtually impossible to use that data to analyze anything,” wrote David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “ So a choice must be made—either collect enough data, including sensitive data, to make the analysis useful (which requires a comprehensive security plan), or get virtually no utility from the data whatsoever. It appears that the [commission] has chosen the latter, but it’s unclear why.”
“Acquiring voter files from every state and matching them — among themselves and with other databases — will be a quagmire,” wrote Charles Stewart of MIT. “Because we have entrusted states to manage the voter files — for better or worse — a state-directed initiative would seem a better strategy than a controversial, high-visibility activity of a temporary federal commission.”
Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s letter asking states about how they maintain their rolls may be a precursor to efforts to use federal voting law to require states to conduct purges. The National Voter Registration Act mandates that states conduct various measures to remove ineligible voters. Conservative groups have for years complained that those provisions of the law have gone unenforced.