One of the most recent political alarms (if you’re still keeping track) is the request from the President’s commission on election reform for state voter rolls, followed almost instantly by half the states in the Union refusing to send them.
To be honest, confusion seems to be the most common reaction I’ve seen, ranging from “Why do they want it?” to “Why wouldn’t we give it?” So I’ll explain, at least in brief.
Why Do They Want It
Trump has long maintained that his loss of the popular vote (as opposed to the electoral, which he won handily) in the recent election was due in part to the votes of illegal aliens resident in the United States. To many of us this sounds insane — after all, illegal immigrants can stay only by avoiding notice, and registering to vote is almost exactly the opposite — but there’s some simple reasoning to the contrary. The vote preponderance against Trump was largely in California, which not only provides a home to the majority of illegal residents, it also has a very hands-off policy with regard deportation. Similarly, and to pick just one example not quite at random, non-citizen Somali refugees live in large clusters in places like Minnesota, Ohio, and Maine — and, in some of these places, there’s some reason to think they do vote.
Bear in mind: I’m not saying this _did_ happen; I’m just saying that it’s not completely insane to suggest that it might have.
More to the point, though: It’s not possible for anyone to actually contest these allegations, no matter how unlikely they may seem, simply because there exists no comprehensive or definitive pool of data to provide us with a basis for analysis. Which is why the Commission wants the voter rolls; how else could they possibly find out one way or the other?
And, non-citizens aside, it’s reasonable to have some sort of oversight for voter rolls. Every election cycle has its corruption scandals, ranging from the violent (Battle of Athens) to the inept (the Marion Three), the widely accepted (Chicago and New York City) to the apocryphal (VEVO and Jill Stein). Even if voter fraud doesn’t happen widely, it would be as well to have a monitoring system in place to discourage it. Right?
Why Wouldn’t We Give It
According to a recent Washington Post story, we’re now up to 25 states that have explicitly refused to comply with the Commission’s requests for information. Some claim state laws prohibit sharing the data due to privacy concerns — a reasonable objection, as the voter rolls include a great deal of personal information. Others object on the grounds that the Commission itself is either too partisan to be trustworthy or invalid due to its makeup. Then too, there’s the understandable fear that this might lead to voter suppression tactics; Kander at “Let America Vote” summed that position up in compelling fashion here at their site.
There are mixed opinions on the privacy aspect. Much of the information is, after all, a matter of public record, and any citizen could gain access to it. Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Mike Haas released a statement that neatly clarifies his own state’s official policies. “By law, most of the information in Wisconsin’s voter registration system is public and is available for purchase… by political parties, candidates, researchers… Wisconsin statutes do not permit the state to release a voter’s date of birth, driver license number or Social Security number… [except] in limited circumstances with law enforcement agencies… The Presidential Commission does not appear to qualify…”
Other potentially valid objections include that, as the Commission is federal under the Executive, it would be subject to FOIA requests that could easily demand access to all the data, ostensibly for review of analysis methods but in actuality for any purpose imaginable, including commercial or even criminal exploitation. Likewise, use of a Social Security number as an identifier outside the limits of the Act is not permissible by the Executive. And that doesn’t include more overtly sinister possibilities on the part of the government or of organized political party organizations, which have each in the past been observed to have engaged in programs of voter suppression.
Note that this last isn’t conspiracy theory; it’s historical fact, and quite well-documented, particularly during the Civil War. As early as the Adams administration (the Alien and Sedition Acts) and as recently as the McCarthy era, our government has engaged in the suppression of speech deemed unpatriotic. For those who think it couldn’t happen today, witness the present debate over fake news, Google, and Facebook — and not long ago over the Fairness Doctrine and equal time.
A Reasonable Conclusion
With at least half of the states so far already refusing to cooperate, it’s unlikely that this project will be completed as projected. On the other hand, as much of the information is indeed available publicly, and because the cause underlying the commission is one backed by a fairly large percentage of the voting public, it’s equally unlikely that at least some form of this data will be nationally compiled — unless, that is, an organization like the ACLU successfully mounts legal opposition.
In any event, even that would not be enough to prevent a well-funded private partisan organization from gaining access to such of the data as is both legally available and necessary for the identification of unique individuals. At present, the major political parties have full access to the voter rolls in every state, and it’s only a matter of time before they use it for this purpose. The recent failure of the non-partisan organization True The Vote to acquire sufficient funding to do just this only seems to emphasize the likelihood of a partisan effort’s success.
But privacy is important, and so are the rights of the individual — and of the states. Privacy indeed is essential in order to ensure a free and honest voting process, one without suppression or intimidation. And so, whenever this is finally accomplished, it should be done properly, with respect to those rights, and above all with proper regard to the law. After all, if our goal is to make our elections more secure, it would be absurd in the extreme to by so doing undermine that very law that ensures their validity.