When the federal government last week reached out to all 50 states and asked for extensive personal information about voters to investigate voter fraud, more than 25 states balked at the request and several outright refused. And the Mississippi secretary of state, a Republican, told the Trump administration to go jump into the Gulf of Mexico — adding Mississippi was a great state to launch from.
The new federal "Election Integrity Commission," chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, had been assigned the very tall task of investigating the sweeping claim made by President Donald Trump that somewhere between three and five million people illegally voted during the general election last November. A claim that is not supported by any actual evidence, that has been widely debunked and that, it appears likely, the president pulled out of thin air or somewhere else while speaking about his electoral college win in January, lamenting that he lost the popular vote only because of millions of fraudulent votes.
Enter the Election Integrity Commission, which last week asked all 50 states to send over “the full first and last names of all registrants, middle names or initials if available, addresses, dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information.”
So what's Texas got to say to that?
Governor Greg Abbott, who himself has described a "rampant" voter fraud problem with scant evidence, immediately assured Texans on Twitter that "Texas is keeping private your private information: Most states refuse to provide voter data to election panel," linking to an article in The Hill. Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos later clarified in a statement to various news outlets what that means — which is that Texas will be sharing all public information with the feds. Which includes a lot of information.
“The Secretary of State’s office will provide the Election Integrity Commission with public information and will protect the private information of Texas citizens while working to maintain the security and integrity of our state’s elections system," Pablos said. "As always, my office will continue to exercise the utmost care whenever sensitive voter information is required to be released by state or federal law.”
The Secretary of State's Office has said it is treating the federal government's request just like any other public information request. Based on Texas law, anybody can request voter information that includes voter names, addresses, political party and the dates a voter registered. Social security numbers are not public information. Weirdly, requestors can also ask that "Hispanic surnames" be flagged. (The Secretary of State's Office was apparently out on holiday Monday, the day before Independence Day, and unable to answer our questions as to why this is the case.)
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Beth Stevens, voting rights director at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that advocates are widely concerned about how exactly the Trump administration plans to use this huge amount of personal information belonging to millions of people, compiled into one single location.
"The concern is very frankly, and very straightforwardly, that this is an effort to suppress votes. Period," she said. "The narrative they are pushing is a false one. The narrative coming from the administration is that there are millions of individuals out engaging in voter fraud. This claim has been debunked over and over and over again, yet they still insist on pushing this and feeding it to the American people. And this is dangerous."
Stevens said that given that the premise of the study is entirely unjustifiable, voting rights advocates fear how the commission may attempt to manipulate the results in order to justify amending laws such as the Voting Rights Act and the Help America Vote Act. Stevens pointed to the very first question that the vice chairman of the commission, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, asked states, wanting to know if they had any suggestions about changing federal election laws.
"If they're going to ignore the [studies] already in place when they start this investigation," Stevens said, "then there's no guarantee, no assurance, that we could trust any, quote, 'results' of this data-gathering that they're doing."