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WVU law prof: ‘I cannot recall such a request from a commission for voter data


The Exponent Telegram

CLARKSBURG, W.Va.  — In the midst of what can seem like an endlessly tumultuous news cycle in Washington, somewhat lost in the shuffle has been the work of the Trump administration’s Election Integrity Commission.

The commission, helmed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has asked all 50 states to submit voter registration records — often-private data on individuals that the commission said would be used to help eliminate voter fraud.

WVU professor Atiba Ellis

Although most states refused to hand over the data, other states agreed with conditions for doing so, the request was largely unprecedented, according to WVU professor Atiba Ellis.

“I cannot recall such a request from a commission for voter data,” said Ellis, a professor of law who has researched voter rights. “The G.W. Bush and Obama administrations have had bipartisan commissions regarding elections directed at making voting easier, secure and reliable. And while the G.W. Bush Justice Department studied voter fraud as a national problem (and found virtually no in-person voter impersonation), neither of the past commissions made such a broad request for private data from state election administrators.”

Despite the Trump administration’s concerns about voter fraud, research shows it is not common in America, Ellis said.

“While there is the rare instance of someone voting twice (usually due to an error rather than because of a bad intent), the bad acts in the election process are more often the product of political operatives trying to manipulate voters through acts like vote buying and voter intimidation,” Ellis said.

“However, the kind of fraud at issue in the apparent aims of the Kobach commission is in-person voter impersonation. This fraud is the kind that most studies say is virtually nonexistent,” he said.

Some Americans have also expressed concerns about a potential violation of privacy in the commission’s voter-fraud investigation. Ellis said the information requested by the commission included partial Social Security numbers and other sensitive data, but the commission “did not explain how it would safeguard” those items.

Another concern arose when the Trump administration released comments, both positive and negative, made privately to the government about the investigation — without redaction of details such as the names of those who made the comments.

“While complaints to federal agencies are often treated as public documents and therefore not edited, those agencies often put senders on notice that their emails and private information could be made public,” Ellis said. “It is unclear to me that the Kobach commission has done this basic step that would let citizens know about how their data will be used.”

Some area residents think the commission is doing important work that justifies an invasion of privacy.

Thomas McAnulty of Vienna said he thinks voter fraud is more rampant than statistics show.

“Voter information should be available to anybody because we have voter fraud, but you can’t find out whether the person has the right to vote or not,” McAnulty said. “You’re encouraging those who do want to commit voter fraud (by not releasing the information).”

Jacob Coleman of Philippi was just as adamant that the sanctity of elections is worth upholding and investigating, if necessary. But he expressed concern with the way the Trump administration and the Kobach commission have proceeded.

“On principle, the request for voter data doesn’t immediately knee-jerk me as an issue,” Coleman said. “However, I think demanding it and making it something that has to be done isn’t OK. The temper-tantrum style isn’t something that is very wholesome on the surface.”

Coleman also said the commission needs to take more steps to protect sensitive information about Americans at a time where cyberhacking has been prevalent. And he condemned the release of public comments by the Trump administration.

Clarksburg’s Nick Cain agreed with Coleman and McAnulty that there may be instances of voter fraud, but he echoed the research of Ellis in suggesting Trump’s claims could be overstated.

“From what previous statistics have proven, voter fraud hasn’t been reported that often,” Cain said. “But that may be because there isn’t enough information to say whether or not someone has committed fraud. Personally, I think that voting fraud or tampering is real but might not be as widespread as Trump has claimed.”

For Cain, the solution to the privacy issue seems simple.

“It does seem very invasive to be asking for private information, but I think it could be regulated to a degree, which would assist in either debunking or proving voter fraud exists,” he said.

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