Judge says Trump panel can col­lect data on vot­ers

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - SPENCER S. HSU

WASHINGTON — A fed­eral judge on Mon­day al­lowed Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s vot­ing com­mis­sion to go for­ward with col­lect­ing voter data from 50 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia, rul­ing the White House ad­vi­sory panel is ex­empt from fed­eral pri­vacy-re­view re­quire­ments re­gard­less of ad­di­tional risk it might pose to Amer­i­cans’ in­for­ma­tion.

The rul­ing averted a public set­back for a pres­i­dent who has claimed wide­spread fraud cost him the pop­u­lar vote in Novem­ber. The com­mis­sion’s re­quest for the vot­ing in­for­ma­tion of about more than 150 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers re­mains con­tro­ver­sial, with many state lead­ers from both par­ties voic­ing ob­jec­tions about its po­ten­tial to re­veal per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, sup­press voter par­tic­i­pa­tion and en­croach on states’ over­sight of vot­ing laws.

The panel’s June 28 let­ter to the states re­quested that they turn over “pub­licly-avail­able voter roll data,” in­clud­ing name, ad­dress, date of birth, party reg­is­tra­tion, par­tial So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers and vot­ing, mil­i­tary, felony and over­seas his­tory, among other data.

On July 10, the White House clar­i­fied that it had scrapped plans to use a Pen­tagon-op­er­ated web­site to ac­cept the data and had de­signed a new sys­tem in­side the White House to take the sub­mis­sions.

Those changes ap­peared cru­cial in a 35-page rul­ing by U.S. Dis­trict Judge Colleen Kol­lar-Kotelly of Washington.

“The mere in­creased risk of dis­clo­sure stem­ming from the col­lec­tion and even­tual, anonymized dis­clo­sure of al­ready pub­licly avail­able voter roll in­for­ma­tion is in­suf­fi­cient” to block the data re­quest, she wrote.

Kol­lar-Kotelly, who was ap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in 1997, ruled against the Elec­tronic Pri­vacy In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, a group that sought to block the com­mis­sion’s data re­quest be­cause the panel had not con­ducted a full pri­vacy-im­pact state­ment as re­quired by a 2002 fed­eral law for new govern­ment elec­tronic data col­lec­tion sys­tems.

She con­cluded that while the Elec­tronic Pri­vacy In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter had the right to sue un­der the law for a pri­vacy re­view, the com­mis­sion was a pres­i­den­tial ad­vi­sory panel, not a fed­eral agency sub­ject to the pri­vacy law.

“Nei­ther the Com­mis­sion or the Di­rec­tor of White House In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy — who is cur­rently charged with col­lect­ing voter roll in­for­ma­tion on be­half of the Com­mis­sion — are ‘agen­cies’” of the fed­eral govern­ment sub­ject to the court’s re­view in this mat­ter, Kol­lar-Kotelly wrote.

“To the ex­tent the fac­tual cir­cum­stances change, how­ever — for ex­am­ple, if the … pow­ers of the Com­mis­sion ex­pand be­yond those of a purely ad­vi­sory body — this de­ter­mi­na­tion may need to be re­vis­ited.”

Kol­lar-Kotelly wrote the only added risk to pri­vacy were if the White House com­puter sys­tems are more vul­ner­a­ble to se­cu­rity threats than those of the states, or that its de-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process would be in­ad­e­quate.

A spokesman for the voter in­for­ma­tion com­mis­sion did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. The com­mis­sion is led by Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, with Kansas Sec­re­tary of State Kris Kobach, a Repub­li­can, as vice chair­man.

The court order was not a fi­nal rul­ing on the com­mis­sion’s work, with other groups fil­ing law­suits and one ap­peal­ing to a higher fed­eral court to block its ac­tion un­der open-records and -meet­ing laws.

But Mon­day’s rul­ing re­moved one le­gal ob­sta­cle. The com­mis­sion had asked states to hold off sub­mit­ting the sweep­ing voter data the panel had re­quested pend­ing the court de­ci­sion.

At least 44 states have in­di­cated they won’t pro­vide all their voter data, with some say­ing they would pro­vide noth­ing and oth­ers pro­vid­ing what in­for­ma­tion they could un­der state laws.

The vice pres­i­dent’s of­fice has said 20 states have agreed to share at least some data and 16 more are re­view­ing the re­quest.

Trump has said that wide­spread voter fraud cost him the pop­u­lar vote in Novem­ber against Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton. Crit­ics say the claim is un­sub­stan­ti­ated and is a pre­text for fed­eral laws to sup­press voter par­tic­i­pa­tion, in­clud­ing by racial mi­nor­ity groups and poor peo­ple.

Trump has cham­pi­oned the com­mis­sion’s work as a way to “strengthen up vot­ing pro­ce­dures” by iden­ti­fy­ing “vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties … that could lead to im­proper voter reg­is­tra­tions and im­proper vot­ing.” Con­ser­va­tive board mem­bers have ad­vo­cated stricter fed­eral elec­tion laws, al­leg­ing that a lib­eral bias in U.S. en­force­ment has ben­e­fited lib­er­als.

Repub­li­cans such as Ari­zona Sec­re­tary of State Michele Rea­gan had called the com­mis­sion’s re­quest a “hastily or­ga­nized ex­per­i­ment,” or a “fed­eral in­tru­sion and over­reach,” as Louisiana Sec­re­tary of State Tom Schedler, a Repub­li­can, put it.

Demo­cratic New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo re­fused “to per­pet­u­ate the myth voter fraud played a role in our elec­tion,” while Ver­mont Sec­re­tary of State James Con­dos, a Demo­crat, called the com­mis­sion “a waste of tax­payer money.”

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