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Trump voter commission to store data on White House computers under Pence staff direction

(Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration announced plans to keep voter roll data it has requested from all 50 states and the District on White House computers under the direction of a member of Vice President Pence’s staff, it told a federal judge Thursday.

The disclosure of the White House role came in a government filing required in a lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog organization that has asked a federal judge in Washington to block the requests for voter data until the impact on Americans’ privacy can be fully assessed.

A decision on the request for a temporary restraining order by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly is expected as early as Friday afternoon.

The commission’s request for voting information has caused a nationwide uproar.

The states that won’t provide all of their voter data grew to a group of at least 44 by Wednesday, including some that said they would provide nothing. Others said that they will provide what information they can but that state laws control what can be made public.

Then U.S. President-elect Donald Trump met with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in November 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The vice president’s office said the commission’s letter asked only for publicly available data under state laws, stating that 20 states have agreed to share at least some data and 16 more are reviewing the request.

President Trump has made claims widespread voter fraud cost him the popular vote in November, although critics say the claim is unsubstantiated and is a pretext for voter suppression.

In a court filing, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), vice chairman of the Trump panel and a leading conservative voice on concerns about voter fraud, said the data would be stored through the White House.

The executive order in May creating the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity stated that the panel would be funded and staffed through the General Services Administration — a federal agency subject to privacy requirements.

But that arrangement has shifted, according to Kobach’s filing. “At this time, there are no plans for the General Services Administration to collect or store any voter registration or other elections-related data for the Commission,” Kobach said in response to questions from the court.

“Commission staff will download the files … onto White House computers,” he wrote, adding that an employee of the vice president’s office will be responsible with White House information technology staff for collecting and storing any data.

Kollar-Kotelly, a 1997 Clinton appointee, had pressed for details about committee membership and operations after the government asked her to toss out the EPIC lawsuit. The government defended its request for voter details saying the data was “publicly available” and that the commission planned to “de-identify” sensitive data before releasing documents. It also said the voter commission was a presidential advisory panel not subject to federal privacy review requirements.

In its response, EPIC President Marc Rotenberg called the privacy implications of the demand for voter roll data from across the country “staggering,” and said the commission had no authority “to gather hundreds of millions of voter records from the states or to create a secret database stored in the White House.”

EPIC wrote to the court that the commissionsought data “at the heart of democratic institutions and protected under state law … without complying with any of the laws enacted to protect personal privacy.” The privacy watchdog said the panel’s June 28 request to collect, store and publish personal voter information covered at least 157 million registered voters, or more than the 149 million individual tax returns received by the Internal Revenue Service.

EPIC said the proposal would increase privacy risks to every registered voter, “including in particular military families whose home addresses would be revealed.”

In its letters to state officials, the commission invited them to submit state data by email, or by an Army-operated file exchange website, with an invalid security certification system, neither of which appear secured, EPIC said.

It also highlighted the commission’s request for partial Social Security Numbers — often used as passwords for commercial services — and felony conviction data included in voter data, and said plans to make such information publicly available “is both without precedent and crazy.”

Trump formed the commission after repeatedly suggesting that voter fraud cost him the popular vote against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Studies and state officials of both parties have found no evidence of widespread voting fraud.

Led by chairman Pence, Kobach on Thursday confirmed in a court filing that the panel’s other members are Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson (R); New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (D); Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap (D); former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell (R); Christy McCormick (R), commissioner with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission; former Arkansas state representative David Dunn (D); Mark Rhodes, clerk of Wood County, W.Va. (D); and Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow of the Heritage Foundation (R).

Kobach said in the court filing that McCormick is not serving in her official capacity as a member of the EAC.Kobach said the Trump commission has “no legal relationship with the EAC,” and that while the president can appoint additional members to the newly formed advisory commission, to Kobach’s knowledge, no other federal agency officials are currently under consideration.

Instead, he said, the White House is using a website for data transfers operated by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center.

spencer.hsu@washpost.com


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