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Analysis

The Gravest Dangers of Trump’s Voter Fraud Commission

Voters must continue to tell their states why standing up to Trump and his sham commission is the right thing to do. There is a lot at stake—states and voters cannot afford to lose this battle.

  • Tomas Lopez
July 7, 2017

Cross-posted at TIME

For a commis­sion claim­ing to be seri­ous about ensur­ing the integ­rity of elec­tions, Pres­id­ent Donald Trump’s newly formed “Pres­id­en­tial Advis­ory Commis­sion on Elec­tion Integ­rity” is off to a troub­ling start.

Last week, the commis­sion, chaired by Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence and Kansas Secret­ary of State Kris Kobach, sent a letter to chief elec­tion offi­cials through­out the coun­try seek­ing voters’ sens­it­ive, personal inform­a­tion — includ­ing names, addresses, the last four digits of voters’ social secur­ity numbers, inform­a­tion on which elec­tions people have voted in since 2006 and inform­a­tion on felony convic­tions — as well as answers to a number of open-ended ques­tions. All of this inform­a­tion was to be provided in just two weeks.

The responses from states faced with this alarm­ing request have varied. Some are currently review­ing the commis­sion’s letter. Others have refused to provide any voter inform­a­tion protec­ted by their state laws. Others still have rejec­ted the commis­sion’s request outright.

Secret­ar­ies of State from both parties have spoken out about their inab­il­ity to turn over the inform­a­tion soli­cited by Kobach. The Missis­sippi Secret­ary of State — a Repub­lican — said the commis­sion could “go jump into the Gulf of Mexico.” Arizon­a’s Secret­ary of State, Michele Reagan, also a Repub­lican, said she could not “in good conscience” release sens­it­ive voter data for a “hast­ily organ­ized exper­i­ment.” And in a bizarre twist, even Kobach said his own state would be unable to share some inform­a­tion.

Accord­ing to Trump, states refus­ing to comply with the commis­sion must have some­thing to hide — but the Pres­id­ent is wrong. There are a lot of good reas­ons why states would be inclined to ignore the commis­sion’s request.

State offi­cials refus­ing to hand over priv­ileged, personal inform­a­tion and fill out lengthy ques­tion­naires are right­fully placing their states’ laws, resources and citizens ahead of an ill-advised mandate from a group with dubi­ous motives and meth­ods. The panel — created to bolster Trump’s completely base­less state­ment that 3–5 million people voted illeg­ally in 2016 — has done noth­ing to alle­vi­ate concerns that it’s no more than a bogus altern­at­ive fact–find­ing mission, digging for non-exist­ent evid­ence of fraud to impose stricter federal voting laws that could disen­fran­chise eligible voters.

A spokes­per­son for the Vice Pres­id­ent confirmed that the commis­sion plans to compare the data it receives to names on other federal data­bases. This is a prob­lem because we’ve seen that, with the wrong meth­ods, compar­ing data­bases can lead to inac­cur­ately large reports of people registered in two places, or alleged non-citizen regis­trants (that’s what has happened with similar efforts in the past, includ­ing through the Kobach-led Inter­state Crosscheck). Those inflated figures can become the justi­fic­a­tion for need­lessly harsh voting restric­tions.

One look at the commis­sion’s makeup reveals that they could end up under­min­ing, not enhan­cing, public confid­ence in our elec­tions. It includes proponents of the nation’s harshest voting restric­tions and, despite claims of bipar­tis­an­ship, is chaired by two members of the same polit­ical party. By contrast, past elec­tion panels were chaired by respec­ted lawyers for Pres­id­ent Obama and Mitt Romney, and Former Pres­id­ent Jimmy Carter and Repub­lican Secret­ary of State James A. Baker III.

The commis­sion’s request is not only poorly conceived; it’s also poorly executed. Kobach’s letter asks states to provide inform­a­tion they may not, legally, be at liberty to share under state and federal law. Many states place limits on what their elec­tion offi­cials can disclose and how that inform­a­tion can be used — for instance, by barring commer­cial use or permit­ting only polit­ical or campaign use. Secret­ar­ies of State who provide voter inform­a­tion to the panel could face vari­ous adverse legal consequences (explored in greater detail here). For instance, an indi­vidual in Wash­ing­ton state could be sued in civil court if they do not take “reas­on­able precau­tions” to prevent voter data from being used by others for barred purposes.

And even if the commis­sion back­tracked from its previ­ous state­ments that any inform­a­tion submit­ted by states “will also be made avail­able to the public,” a federal law would likely require the commis­sion to make any data it received avail­able for public consump­tion. That’s because commis­sions like this one are bound to provide a certain level of trans­par­ency to the general public. Moreover, the panel’s vague direct­ive that all voter data should be submit­ted through an online portal means private inform­a­tion, regard­less of whether or not it’s public, could be vulner­able to foreign hack­ing, theft or other foul play.

If this commis­sion is truly inter­ested in work­ing with state offi­cials to improve elec­tions, there is plenty of work to be done — and it would­n’t require those offi­cials to collect and send private inform­a­tion to the federal govern­ment when they have their hands full running elec­tions. The panel instead could provide resources so voting machines and regis­tra­tion data­bases are safe from hack­ing or foreign inter­fer­ence; systems in Illinois and a repor­ted 38 other states were targeted by Russia in 2016. It could also consider examin­ing the bene­fits of imple­ment­ing reforms like auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, which would auto­mat­ic­ally register eligible citizens to vote when they inter­act with a govern­ment agency, unless they decline. The reform has recently been approved by eight states and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. It would help keep voter rolls accur­ate, up-to-date and secure.

Voters must continue to tell their states why stand­ing up to Trump and his sham commis­sion is import­ant and the right thing to do. There is a lot at stake here, and both states and voters cannot afford to lose this battle.

(Image: Flickr.com/GageSkid­more)