Cen­sus Bureau hits snag over driver’s li­cense data

States re­fus­ing to share records with Wash­ing­ton

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Mike Schneider

OR­LANDO, Fla. — An ef­fort by the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau to col­lect state driver’s li­cense records as part of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s or­der to gather cit­i­zen­ship in­for­ma­tion has been a bust so far.

The vast ma­jor­ity of state mo­tor ve­hi­cle agen­cies had not agreed to share their records with the bureau, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press sur­vey of the 50 states. The ef­fort over the past cou­ple of months has alarmed civil rights groups, which see it as part of a back­door move by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­duce the po­lit­i­cal power of mi­nori­ties.

In Au­gust, the bureau be­gan re­quest­ing five years’ worth of driver’s li­cense records, promis­ing the in­for­ma­tion would be kept con­fi­den­tial. The ef­fort be­gan af­ter the U.S. Supreme Court re­jected the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to add a cit­i­zen­ship ques­tion to the 2020 cen­sus, and the pres­i­dent in­stead or­dered cit­i­zen­ship data com­piled through fed­eral and state ad­min­is­tra­tive records.

At least 13 states have re­fused to share the driver’s li­cense data, 17 are still de­cid­ing what to do and 17 haven’t yet re­ceived a re­quest, ac­cord­ing to the AP sur­vey. Three states didn’t re­spond to mul­ti­ple AP queries as of last week.

Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic states alike have said no, cit­ing pri­vacy con­cerns and pro­hi­bi­tions in state law.

“Philo­soph­i­cally, we be­lieve the in­for­ma­tion in the data­base doesn’t be­long to us. It be­longs to the peo­ple who it per­tains to,” Maine Sec­re­tary of State Matthew Dunlap said. “It’s not ours to give away.”

Two of the big­gest states, Cal­i­for­nia and New York, haven’t re­ceived re­quests yet. Three more of the top five most pop­u­lous states — Texas, Florida and Penn­syl­va­nia — are de­cid­ing how to re­spond.

Many states got calls or emails sim­i­lar to one from a Cen­sus Bureau of­fi­cial ask­ing an Arkansas Driver Ser­vices of­fi­cial if she had time to dis­cuss the bureau’s “new and ex­cit­ing project.”

Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the Arkansas agency, said: “We are cur­rently work­ing to de­ter­mine whether the re­quested in­for­ma­tion is el­i­gi­ble for re­lease.”

Utah of­fi­cials turned down the re­quest be­cause state law says per­sonal data can be shared only for pub­lic safety rea­sons, said Marissa Cote, a spokes­woman for the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety in the Repub­li­can-lean­ing state.

Demo­cratic-lean­ing Ne­vada also de­clined.

“We value our res­i­dents’ pri­vacy and hes­i­tate to re­lease records in bulk,” said Kevin Malone, a spokesman for the mo­tor ve­hi­cle agency.

States that haven’t de­cided how to re­spond said they were re­search­ing the le­gal and pri­vacy im­pli­ca­tions. In is­su­ing driver’s li­censes, most states re­quire doc­u­ments such as a birth cer­tifi­cate that would re­flect cit­i­zen­ship or re­quire that re­cip­i­ents be ei­ther cit­i­zens or in the U.S. legally.

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union has urged states to turn the Cen­sus Bureau down.

The ACLU and other civil rights groups say the re­quests are part of an over­all strategy by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to en­cour­age states to use counts of cit­i­zens only, as op­posed to to­tal pop­u­la­tion, when re­draw­ing state and lo­cal elec­toral districts. Such a move could make districts older, whiter and more Repub­li­can.

“This en­deavor ap­pears to be part of a scheme mo­ti­vated by an un­con­sti­tu­tional dis­crim­i­na­tory purpose to di­lute the po­lit­i­cal power of com­mu­ni­ties of color,” said Dale Ho, di­rec­tor of the ACLU’s Vot­ing Rights Project.

The Cen­sus Bureau said in its re­quests that the driver’s li­cense records would be used, in part, to help build a sta­tis­ti­cal model for cal­cu­lat­ing the num­ber of cit­i­zens and nonci­t­i­zens in the coun­try.

Even though the pres­i­dent’s or­der re­quires col­lect­ing the cit­i­zen­ship in­for­ma­tion, Cen­sus Bureau of­fi­cials are con­cerned that it could hin­der ef­forts to get peo­ple to par­tic­i­pate in the 2020 cen­sus. The bureau’s own re­search showed adding a cit­i­zen­ship ques­tion to the 2020 ques­tion­naire would have re­duced par­tic­i­pa­tion, mak­ing for a less ac­cu­rate count.

Civil rights groups say driver’s li­cense records do a poor job of show­ing if a per­son is a cit­i­zen.

They point to what hap­pened ear­lier this year when Texas’ elec­tion chief gave pros­e­cu­tors a list of 95,000 po­ten­tial nonci­t­i­zens on the state’s voter rolls. The list was drawn up with the help of mo­tor ve­hi­cle records. But it turned out that many of those peo­ple had be­come cit­i­zens be­fore cast­ing their bal­lots.

It has been long-stand­ing prac­tice in the U.S. to in­clude im­mi­grants liv­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally in cen­sus counts, which are also used to al­lo­cate bil­lions of dol­lars in fed­eral spend­ing.

WILFREDO LEE/AP

Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can states are balk­ing at shar­ing driver’s li­cense records with the Cen­sus Bureau months af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump or­dered the col­lec­tion of cit­i­zen­ship data.

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