President Trump’s voting commission on Monday asked states and the District to hold off submitting the sweeping voter data the panel had requested until a federal judge in Washington decides whether the White House has done enough to protect Americans’ privacy.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a watchdog group, has asked U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to block the commission’s data request, arguing that the panel had not conducted the full privacy impact statement required by federal law for new government electronic data-collection systems.
Separately Monday, two civil liberties groups filed lawsuits to prevent the commission from holding its first scheduled meeting next week, alleging that the panel had been working in secret and in violation of government regulations on public transparency.
The two new lawsuits add to the potential roadblocks faced by the commission, whose request for voting information from more than 150 million registered voters has drawn bipartisan criticism across the states as an assault on privacy and states’ rights and a stealth attempt at voter suppression.
At least 44 states have indicated that they won’t provide all of their voter data, with some saying they would provide nothing and others turning over what they could under state laws.
Vice President Pence’s office said last week that 20 states have agreed to share at least some data and 16 more are reviewing the request.
In asking the states to hold back on sending information, the White House also said it would delete the information already sent in by Arkansas, the only state so far to comply.
Government lawyers also said in a court filing that the White House was scrapping plans to use a Pentagon-operated website to accept the data and had designed a new system inside the White House to take the submissions.
The redesign came four days before the July 14 deadline the commission set for the states.
Government lawyers have defended the commission’s effort, saying that it is a presidential advisory panel, not a federal agency subject to the privacy requirements; that it is requesting data that is already publicly available; and that it would “de-identify” or make anonymous sensitive information before releasing documents.
In a 4 p.m. filing Monday to Kollar-Kotelly, Justice Department officials said the federal officer responsible for administering the commission, Andrew Kossack, had emailed states at 9:40 a.m. Monday asking that they “not submit any data until this Court rules.”
The filing also said that the White House information technology director was “repurposing an existing” internal White House system that regularly accepts sensitive personal information to be ready to accept records by 6 p.m. Monday, instead of using the Defense Department site. The commission initially designated the Army site to take in records, which White House personnel had planned to then download to their own computer system.
Trump’s May 11 executive order creating the commission stated that it would be funded and staffed through the General Services Administration, which like the Army is a federal agency subject to privacy requirements. But last week in court, the commission said it would not being using the GSA but planned to use a Pentagon system as a bridge to what would be the ultimate repository for the data at the White House.
In a statement Monday, EPIC President and Executive Director Marc Rotenberg declared the White House shifts a measure of victory: “Clearly the Commission should have not asked the states to turn over sensitive voter record information. The program was ill conceived and poorly executed. We expect the Commission will simply announce that it has no intention, going forward, to ask the states for their voter records.”
EPIC in its suit alleged that the creation of “a secret database stored in the White House” of national voter registration information posed “staggering” privacy implications and lacked legal authorization.
EPIC argued that the effort would expose every registered voter to risks — including military families whose home addresses would be revealed, people whose partial Social Security numbers are used as passwords for commercial services and people with past felony convictions.
Trump formed the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity on May 11 after repeatedly suggesting that millions of illegal voters cost him the popular vote against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton last fall.
Studies and state officials of both parties have found no evidence of widespread voting fraud.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), vice chairman of the Trump panel and a leading conservative voice on concerns about voter fraud, sent a June 28 letter to the states requesting that they turn over “publicly-available voter roll data” by July 14, including names; addresses; dates of birth; party registrations; partial Social Security numbers; and voting, military, felony and overseas histories, among other data.
Also Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed separate lawsuits asking the same judge, Kollar-Kotelly, a 1997 Clinton appointee, to find the voting panel in violation of government transparency laws. The public interest group Public Citizen also sued the Army to block any data-sharing from its website on privacy grounds.
Both civil liberties groups asked the court to bar the commission’s July 19 meeting until it releases all public records since its creation in May and until it allows for in-person public attendance. Next week’s meeting is set to be live-streamed over the Internet. The commission members acknowledged holding a meeting by phone June 28, media reports show.
“The commission held its first meeting without notice or making it open to the public. This process is cloaked in secrecy, raising serious concerns about its credibility and intent. What are they trying to hide?” said Theresa Lee, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
“This case seeks to ensure public accountability and transparency in what could be one of the most consequential federal advisory committees ever,” wrote Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the lawyers committee, and John A. Freedman, partner at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, for their legal team. Scores of voters already have canceled their voter registrations because of the White House data request, they assert.
The groups alleged that Congress mandated that federal advisory committees follow rigorous open-meetings and records laws to ensure that members not seek to “advance their own agendas” through their federal work. The executive order creating the commission stated that the GSA would meet federal advisory committee requirements, if they applied.
The lawyers committee alleged that Kobach sought to promote his gubernatorial candidacy.
Trump has championed the commission’s work as a way to “strengthen up voting procedures” by identifying “vulnerabilities . . . that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting.”
Trump on July 1 criticized states for “refusing to give information to the very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL. What are they trying to hide?”