Why You Should Care About Trump's Election Panel & A Public Voter Database

Photo: Xinhua/Wang Ying/Getty Images.

One of the things President Trump can't seem to let go of is the baseless claim that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election. The claim has been debunked plenty of times by researchers, government officials, and federal courts. Nevertheless, Trump signed an executive order to investigate the matter, which created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in May.

The commission is now asking states to turn over voters' personal data if allowed by its respective local laws. But while the Trump administration believes obtaining this information could help "enhance the integrity of federal elections," watchdogs are concerned the request could lead to new voter suppression efforts and security issues.

Keeping a voter roll is required under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which determined that each state must keep a central file of all its registered voters. However, the amount of information that is collected varies from state to state. While the data is technically public, states typically charge a fee for access to the information.

This is one of the reasons why the panel's request and plan to compile a centralized database of the nation's voters is so unprecedented. Ahead, we break down why you should care the Trump administration is requesting states to provide voters' personal information.

What has the commission asked for?

Vice President Mike Pence is the chairman of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach serves as the vice-chairman.

On June 28, Kobach sent a letter to all states asking for feedback on election administration, the process' integrity, and the possibility of fraud.

Some of the information the panel is asking for includes the name of the voter, party affiliation, voting history since 2006, address, last four digits of the Social Security number, felony convictions, and military status. (Ironically, Kobach himself won't be able to turn over all of Kansas' information to the commission because voters' Social Security numbers are not public in the state.)

Kobach is one of the few public figures who have openly supported Trump's unfounded claim that "millions" voted illegally in the last election. In fact, Kobach was photographed in November carrying an outline that read "stop aliens from voting" when he met with Trump.

Where Trump stands on the matter

Trump labeled the commission a "voter fraud panel" in a tweet where he criticized and questioned states for refusing to give out the data.

How have states responded to the commission's request?

As of Wednesday, secretaries of state, governors, or other government officials in 44 states had told CNN they won't provide certain voter information to the commission.

Some Republicans have welcomed the commission's request, but others have been highly critical. Delbert Hosseman, Mississippi's Secretary of State, provided a strong-worded answer to Kobach's letter.

"My reply would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great State to launch from," Hosseman said in a statement last Friday. "Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our State’s right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes."

Democrats have also argued against the request. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla went as far as calling the commission "a waste of taxpayer money" and "a distraction from the real threats to the integrity of our elections today" last week.

"I will not provide sensitive voter information to a commission that has already inaccurately passed judgment that millions of Californians voted illegally. 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," he said in a statement.

Why watchdog groups find this request problematic

There are many reasons why requesting this data concerns voting rights advocates.

Timing: Kobach asked states to reply by July 14 in his letter, meaning that states have a little over two weeks to submit their responses along with the voters' data.

Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt, who worked in the Justice Department during the Obama administration, said in a blog post that it was "irresponsible" to build a national voter database in two weeks without discussing how the information may be used.

Security concerns: Kobach is asking states to submit all the information via email or through an online portal. He also said that the data would eventually be made public.

Experts worry that compiling all the information could make it susceptible to hacking and digital manipulation. This is especially pertinent considering that Russian hackers were able to access voters' data in 39 states, and attempted to alter or delete said data during the 2016 election. Thus, having the nation's entire voter roll in one place could be dangerous.

"The bigger the purse, the more effort folks would spend to get at it," Joe Hall, chief technologist at the digital advocacy group Center for Democracy and Technology, told Politico. "And in this case, this is such a high-profile and not-so-competent tech operation that we're likely to see the hacktivists and pranksters take shots at it."

Voter suppression efforts: The commission has not yet stated the purpose behind collecting the voter roll data of every state, besides investigating "fraud." But Kobach has a history of championing initiatives that could lead to disfranchising voters: According to the Brennan Center for Justice, he has been the architect of several voter suppression laws, such as the Safe and Fair Elections Act. The measured required people to show proof of citizenship when registering to vote in Kansas; it also required people to show identification in order to cast a ballot. (The proof of citizenship requirement was blocked in federal court last year.)

"We're concerned about unlawful voter purging, which has been something that Kris Kobach has been leading the charge," Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former chief of the Justice Department's civil rights division, told The Washington Post. "It's a real concern that he's building a nationwide database of voters. The question is: How does this data get used?"

For example, Kobach stood behind the use of Crosscheck, a voter information database, in Kansas. The main purpose of the system is to match voters' names and dates of birth to check whether they're registered to vote in more than one state. If this data shows up for people in different states, Crosscheck flags it as a potential double registration. Theoretically, this is a great idea. However, a recent study found the system's algorithm is very flawed: For every real double registration, Crosscheck flagged about 200 false positives.

There's also the issue of including the voter's party affiliation in the database. The Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits the federal government from keeping a record of voters' affiliation, even though states are allowed to collect this data. It's unclear why the commission wants states to divulge this information, but advocates fear that the database could be used a starting point to enact voting suppression laws, targeting particularly minorities and other groups that tend to lean Democratic.

"This is the Trump administration creating a government database that hasn’t existed before, and it’s one that asks for voters' political parties," Jason Kander, former Missouri secretary of state and chairman the Democratic National Committee's Commission on Protecting American Democracy from the Trump Administration, told Mother Jones. "It looks more and more like they’re going to target certain voters who aren’t going to vote for them."