Federal election commission puts a hold on request for Colorado voter data
Author: Ernest Luning - July 11, 2017 - Updated: July 11, 2017
The White House election commission that’s caused such a stir with its request for troves of voter data from every state hit the pause button Monday.
In an email delivered to Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams and other election officials across the country, an officer with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity told officials to put a hold on submitting data until a judge has ruled on a lawsuit that’s trying to block the release.
Williams had planned to send the commission a disc on Friday — the initial deadline — with the voter data he’s legally allowed to provide to anyone who asks, a spokeswoman for his office said, but will now wait to hear further updates before proceeding.
“As you may know, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint seeking a Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) in connection with the June 28, 2017 letter sent by Vice Chair Kris Kobach requesting publicly-available voter data,” commission official Andrew Cossack wrote to state election officials on Monday. “See Electronic Privacy Information Center v. Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Until the Judge rules on the TRO, we request that you hold on submitting any data. We will follow up with you with further instructions once the Judge issues her ruling.”
The lawsuit brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center charges that Kobach violated a 2002 federal law by failing to create and publish a Privacy Impact Assessment, as well as first asking states to submit voter records to an insecure server that could expose millions of Americans to identity theft.
The commission, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, its chair, and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, was created in May by President Donald Trump to examine vulnerabilities in election systems “that could lead to improper voter registrations, improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.”
Kobach, in a letter delivered to state officials on June 28, asked state officials to submit the publicly available information from each state’s voter rolls, including full names and addresses, dates of birth, party affiliation, driver’s license numbers, the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers, voting history going back a decade, felony convictions and military and overseas voter status.
While Williams said from the start he only planned to provide voter data that’s considered public — withholding precise birthdates, any portion of voters’ Social Security numbers or other data considered confidential under Colorado law — the request was met with a storm of criticism from advocacy groups and officials questioning the commission’s motives and voters unhappy their records would be sent to Washington.
Critics of the commission have said they’re alarmed by statements made by Trump and Kobach maintaining the electoral system is plagued with massive voter fraud, including charges that “millions” of people voted illegally in the last presidential election.
County clerks have said that since the furor over the commission’s data request spread last week hundreds of voters have been deleting their registration while a smaller number have been sealing their voter records as confidential.
U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, last week called the request a “taxpayer-funded fishing expedition” that “raises serious privacy concerns” and could dampen voter participation. He also charged the commission could “distract from the real threat to our democracy: Russian interference in our elections” and called on Trump to do more to hold the Russians accountable.
Denise Maes, public policy director of the ACLU of Colorado, urged Williams to refuse to comply with the request.
“President Trump’s baseless claim that millions of illegal voters participated in the 2016 election has been summarily debunked,” Maes told Colorado Politics. “Yet the federal government is pushing forward on a massive voter suppression effort based on myths and outright lies about voter fraud. Colorado’s secretary of state should not be complicit in a politically-motivated federal campaign to intimidate voters and suppress the vote.”
The national ACLU filed a lawsuit against the election commission on Monday, alleging multiple violations of another law that sets certain requirements for federal advisory committees.
Williams has repeatedly stressed that he’s only been planning to provide the commission with the same information available to anyone who asks and pays a nominal fee.
“The context is that they’re asking for the information that is publicly available, and we will provide the publicly available information — just like anyone in the state can grab a CD of it for 50 bucks,” he told Colorado Politics.
Williams said he didn’t understand the “political posturing” surrounding the request and wondered if some of the critics had thought through their complaints.
“We never demand that you only get the information for proper purposes,” he said. “That would kind of eviscerate the entire concept of open records.”
Some voters didn’t know that information from their voter records was already available and was routinely sold to political parties, campaign organizations and news outlets, said Williams spokeswoman Lynn Bartels. She said the secretary of state’s office had been receiving more complaints than usual after news of the commission’s request broke.