When President Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, sent a letter to every state in the country on Thursday requesting “publicly available voter roll data,” Delbert Hosemann, the Republican secretary of state from Mississippi, responded simply: “Go jump in the Gulf.”
The letter that evoked Hosemann’s colorful retort was sent under the signature of the commission’s vice-chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of only a few public figures to embrace the president’s unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud — the combating of which is the commission’s ostensible mission. In addition to all publicly available data on the states’ voter rolls, it also asked for information that is rarely considered public election records, such as information about felony convictions and the last four digits of the Social Security number.
I’ve been studying America’s election administration since 2000, and I’ve rarely seen a firestorm like this. A few states have responded to Kobach’s letter with fiery opposition, such as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s statement that he refused to “legitimize” its work by contributing his state’s voter file. Others, like Hosemann, have used the request to remind Washington of the states’ preeminent role in running elections. But most states have approached the Kobach letter as a standard public records request, supplying the data they would supply anyone else who asked — sometimes for the required $12,500 fee, as in Wisconsin.
The form of the voter list request suggests Kobach is hoping to build a national voter registration list—a massive database consisting of every voter in the United States and their voting history of the past ten years. The letter didn’t state this as the reason, but the consensus within the election administration community is that Kobach wants to conduct a huge data-matching project, to see how many non-citizens have voted in recent elections and to see how many people have voted twice in the same election.
These assumptions are based on Kobach’s reputation for his dogged determination that double-voting and non-citizen voting be eradicated in Kansas. He also has been an indefatigable advocate of the interstate crosscheck program, a Kansas-based program that facilitates the cross-state matching of voter lists. During the presidential transition, Kobach was photographed walking into a meeting with Donald Trump with talking points under his arm that revealed plans to “stop aliens from voting.”
If Kobach’s goal was to create a super crosscheck program, he would have been disappointed, even if every state had complied. His letter requests data that are ill-suited for accurate matching. Not only are the matching methods that are likely to be employed poorly suited to producing accurate results, the DHS immigration dataset, which might provide some information about the presence of non-citizens on voter rolls, can’t be searched by name.
Therefore, the data requested by the commission will leave unsatisfied anyone who has a serious interest in how much double-voting or non-citizen voting there actually is in the United States. Most likely, the results of low-quality matches using the voter files that do arrive will significantly overstate the amount of double voting and voting by non-citizens. If a poor match occurs, the list maintenance programs of the states will be unfairly impugned, lowering the confidence of voters for no good reason. This is why no one I have talked to who runs elections, Democrats or Republicans, is happy with Kobach’s request.
On top of concerns about the quality and use of the data, the Kobach letter raises a passel of privacy issues. How will the data base be housed and protected? Will the resulting national voter file be subject to federal FOIA requests? Will those requests be granted based on state or federal laws? Will the match lists that are produced be public documents?
And there are other important questions raised by the Pence Commission’s charge. Trump has insisted that millions of non-citizens voted in the 2016 election. Few experts agree it’s that high, but what is the real number?
Because the U.S. uses the honor system (backed up by felony sanctions) to police its citizenship requirement to vote, it’s reasonable to ask how well that honor system is working. Of course, we already have some idea of the answer to this question. The best evidence suggests that a tiny fraction of votes are cast by non-citizens.
Ohio’s recent experience is typical. In February 2017, John Husted, Ohio’s secretary of state, announced that his staff had uncovered 821 non-citizens on Ohio’s voter rolls, including 126 who had cast a ballot in at least one election. These numbers are greater than zero, but they are tiny by any standard in a state that saw 5.6 million people vote in 2016.
Still, it would be good to be able to perform high-quality matches of state voter rolls against DHS immigration databases to allow states to have the best information at their disposal to update their rolls.
A well-designed system to better understand how many non-citizen are on the voter rolls requires a system composed of three elements — precise data; methods that accurately match individuals across datasets; and safeguards that respect individual privacy.
The Kobach letter makes reference to none of this.
It’s instructive to compare the Pence Commission with the last presidential election reform group, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which was appointed almost exactly four years ago, in response to the long lines that bedeviled voters in 2012. The PCEA, also known as the Bauer-Ginsberg Commission, operated in a meticulous, bipartisan fashion. Just as important, they respected the wisdom of state and local election officials. Many of their most important findings—such as the “impending crisis” of aging voting systems—bubbled up from these officials as the PCEA went on a nationwide listening tour and solicited written and oral testimony from many sources.
Taking a page from the Bauer-Ginsberg Commission, the Pence Commission could have made much more progress toward uncovering problems related to multiple voting and non-citizen voting if they had first asked the states and localities what they thought. What procedures do they currently undertake to maintain their rolls? What evidence do they have that double voting and non-citizen voting are problems in their states? What is their experience with the programs that exist to help states address these issues, such as the interstate cross check program and the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC)?
After hearing from the states, the Pence Commission then would be in a solid position to ask whether they would participate in a program of cross-state matching the Commission would sponsor. Or, it might discover that the states are already on the case.
One thing I am sure the Pence Commission would hear — and is likely to hear anyway — is that many states would like better access to the data contained in the DHS’s immigration database called SAVE. I have heard frustrations about this from both Democratic and Republican election administrators. Currently, states have access to SAVE, but the problem with it is that the system wasn’t designed to search for people by name, only by alien registration number. (This is a common problem of trying to repurpose for election administration reasons a database that was designed for another purpose.) So it’s useful only if you already know someone is a non-citizen, or is naturalized. It’s useless for spotting non-citizens inadvertently showing up on voter rolls.
Kobach is a controversial figure in election administration, which is illustrated by the negative reactions from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to his request. This negative reaction is not evidence, as President Trump’s recent tweet suggests, that the states are trying to hide something. Quite the opposite. There’s a large political middle in the election administration community that recognizes the value of database matching for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the voter registration system.
Database matching protocols can be designed so that they comply with the safeguards of the National Voter Registration Act, thus keeping the path to the ballot box clear for all eligible voters while closing the door to ineligibles. The process can be effective if good data, good protocols, and attention to privacy are accounted for from the start. The election administration community will be watching carefully to see if the Pence Commission can learn from its stumble out of the gate.