Secretary of State John Merrill photo via Facebook
In the wake of both a lawsuit filed by an electronic privacy group and widespread noncompliance from local officials including here in Alabama, a commission tasked by President Donald Trump with assessing election integrity has put on hold its request for respective states’ voter information.
The body, created by an executive order in May, is called the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, and is tasked with identifying “voting systems and practices used for federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.”
Formed following President Trump’s claims that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election, the body is formally headed by Vice President Mike Pence, but is effectively run by its vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach has become well known for his advocacy of voter identification laws and his claims, similar to those of the president, that voter fraud is widespread in the U.S. voting system.
On June 28, Kobach sent a letter to state election officials across the country asking for “publicly-available voter roll data including … 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, and voter history from 2006 onward,” as well as information on felony conviction records of voters.
After the letter’s initial distribution, states’ responses were somewhat mixed, but 44 of 50 states have said that they will not provide at least some of the requested information, for various reasons. Some states have cited state law, privacy concerns, or a combination thereof. Some, like Alabama, have made clear that the information requested will cost the Trump Administration under state law — over $35,000 in the Yellowhammer State’s case. A few have committed to giving up all the information. A couple states’ election officials have (West Virginia, Montana) even said they didn’t receive a copy of the original request at all.
“We still have a number of questions we have to get answered,” Secretary of State John Merrill said shortly after receiving the letter. “The secretary of state’s office will comply with the request if we are convinced that the overall effort will produce the necessary results to accomplish the commission’s stated goal without compromising the integrity of the voter rolls and the elections process in Alabama.”
From there, Merrill’s comments on the federal request became much more critical.
“We want to be helpful. We want to encourage [the effort]. We think they are trying to be helpful to the country,” Merrill said, “but we’re not sure we’re going to provide everything they have asked for. We are not doing it on June 30 and we’re not sure if it will be provided by July 14 … We want to make sure our voter information is protected. We want to be helpful but have to make sure information on our constituents is secure.”
Merrill also raised questions about the fiscal feasibility of the federal government buying voter info from dozens of states — something that would be necessary in Alabama, for example.
“If the Commission wanted to gain access, they may have to buy [the publicly available voter information], but I don’t know if that’s important to the president or the commission to make an appropriation for the expense that would be in the millions of dollars to buy all 50 states’ [data],” Merrill said.
Merrill also had questions about the type of information requested in the letter.
“I’m not fully understanding why some of the information was requested,” he said. “It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me … One of the things they asked was ‘How many people are felons on your voting rolls?’ Well, if someone gets the legal right to vote in your state, why do you need to know their criminal history? That’s not appropriate.”
In Alabama, not all felonies — only those of “moral turpitude” — disqualify a citizen from voting.
Other secretaries of state, including Mississippi’s Delbert Hosemann, were even more disparaging of the demand for voter data.
“My reply [to the commission)] would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from,” Hosemann said after the letter was released.
“Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our state’s right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes.”
Kobach may not have to answer Merrill’s questions, though — or jump into the Gulf at Hosemann’s behest — at least for now. A recently filed lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center has stalled efforts to collect the information until “the judge rules on the temporary restraining order,” according to an email sent by the commission to Alabama officials first published by the Anniston Star. “We will follow up with you with further instructions once the judge issues her ruling,” the email from the commission said.
Aside from the privacy lawsuit and state opposition to providing voter information — particularly free of charge — to the commission, various civic and civil rights groups have voiced their opposition to the request.
“There is no justification for this giant fishing expedition,” a statement for the League of Women Voters said of the commission’s move. “The commission itself is a distraction from the real issue of voter suppression, and that efforts to ‘investigate voter fraud’ threaten our most fundamental voting rights.”
This isn’t the first time Kobach has led a voter fraud inquiry.
Kobach previously presided over an inquiry into possible double voting in a sample of 84 million votes in 22 states. Of those 84 million votes, 14 instances of alleged fraud were referred for prosecution.
The commission is scheduled to meet formally for the first time on July 19 in Washington, D.C.