President Trump's voting commission asked every state and the District for detailed voter registration data, but in Texas's case it took an additional step: It asked to see Texas records that identify all voters with Hispanic surnames, newly released documents show.
White House and Texas officials said the state's voter data was never delivered because a lawsuit brought by Texas voting rights advocates after the request last year temporarily stopped any data handoff.
The voting commission was disbanded Jan. 3 after Trump cited a host of ongoing state and federal lawsuits and resistance from state officials over the sweeping pursuit, in the name of investigating alleged voter fraud, of information about more than 150 million voters across the country. The voting panel said it would destroy all voter data it had gathered, without detailing any data purchases.
Civil and voting rights groups in particular have said the nationwide initiative could establish a pretext to target African American and Latino voters. State officials criticized the project for its potential effect on Americans' privacy, state oversight on elections and voter participation.
Texas since 1983 has identified voters with a Hispanic name to mail bilingual election notices in Spanish and English as required by state and federal laws, said Sam Taylor, spokesman for Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos (R). Names are selected from the U.S. Census Bureau's list of most common surnames by race and Hispanic origin, Taylor said.
Trump created the voting commission after repeatedly suggesting that millions of illegal voters cost him the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. Studies and state officials from both parties have found no evidence of widespread voting fraud.
On the forms sent to Texas by the voting panel, commission policy adviser Ronald Williams II checked a box to flag Hispanic names and signed a notarized form required as part of the overall process to get voter records released.
The commission paid Texas officials about $3,500 on Sept. 22 for 49.6 million records that were to include lists of voters who were active, those with canceled registrations, and those with an outdated or incorrect address on file; and a list of those who voted in the past six general elections from 2006 through 2016. The flags for the Hispanic surnames would be in the lists.
The voting commission vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris W. Kobach (R) who launched the drive to collect data from every state, said "at no time did the commission request any state to flag surnames by ethnicity or race. It's a complete surprise to me."
Told of documents showing the Texas purchase, Kobach said, "Mr. Williams did not ask any member of the commission whether he should check that box or not, so it certainly wasn't a committee decision."
Such "information does not, did not advance the commission's inquiry in any way, and this is the first I've heard the Texas files included that," Kobach said Friday.
Kobach said: "I don't know what sort of data analysis you would do even remotely relevant to it, but also having just one state" would be "useless. It just doesn't make any sense."
Calls to several phone numbers associated with Williams went unanswered or had been disconnected.
One voting commission member, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap (D), who has sued the voting panel to disclose records that he says were not provided to him, said the selection of Hispanic names appeared improper and could explain why the voting panel has sought to act in secret.
"I find it shocking that they would flag voter names by ethnicity or race, to discover what, we don't know," said Dunlap, who said none of the purchases of state data were disclosed.
"Somebody affirmatively checked that box," he said of the surname flagging. "Right now on its face, in my view, it looks bad, and it looks bad to a lot of people," Dunlap said.
His lawyers with American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group, filed a Texas public records request Friday for communications between state voting officials and the now-defunct voting commission.
The voting commission was chaired by Vice President Pence. A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the defunct voting panel is no longer under its purview, said that given the option in Texas, the voting commission asked to identify Hispanic surnames to resolve data discrepancies or confusion caused by the traditional Spanish naming convention that uses the surnames of both parents.
"There was never a request made to flag people based on their ethnicity," the White House official said Friday. "That was never asked for, nor is that what this [Texas] response is saying, though I can see why some could read it that way."
Former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams, who was a voting commission member, called the request for the flagged surname data "a tempest in a teapot" driven not by foul plots but the bureaucracy of how Texas slices voter information.
In Texas, state law provides for public access to voting records, and it receives about 400 requests a year from individuals or groups, including candidates, academics, political committees and voter and civil rights groups, Taylor at the Texas secretary of state's office said. About 1 in 8 requests between January 2015 and July 2017 asked to flag Hispanic surnames, according to state data released to Texas Monthly magazine.
Nearly a quarter of Texas's 15.1 million-plus registered voters have Hispanic surnames, or almost 3.6 million people, Taylor said.
Records of the Texas data purchase were disclosed after Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Nov. 13 requested information about interactions between the U.S. General Services Administration and the voting commission.
The GSA was the federal agency tasked by the White House to support the operations of the voting panel.
GSA Associate Administrator P. Brennan Hart III produced a 70-page response on Dec. 19, saying five staffers and an estimated $359,000 were committed to a two-year effort, including a request for $215,000 as of Sept. 30.
The records were posted on the website of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where McCaskill is the ranking Democrat. McCaskill spokesman Drew Pusateri said McCaskill is "continuing to review them" but declined to comment further.
The documents appear to show for the first time that the voting commission paid for the processing and release of records from 10 states in September. Earlier, voting rights groups had identified 20 states that turned over information voluntarily.
The voting commission faces lawsuits by at least 10 voting and public accountability groups, seeking information on what other data the panel may have assembled, if any analysis was done and whether information has been shared outside the White House.
Dunlap said the purchase of voting records was "never discussed at any commission meeting at any level."
"It's all speculation because they haven't disclosed anything, but if they are breaking things down along racial and ethnic lines," Dunlap said, it indicates "why they are guarding this information like hungry dogs cornered in a trap."