On Wednesday, the office of Vice President Pence released a statement saying “a letter will be sent today to the 50 states and District of Columbia on behalf of the Commission requesting publicly available data from state voter rolls and feedback on how to improve election integrity.”
States began reacting to the letter on Thursday afternoon. "I have no intention of honoring this request," said Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia in a statement. "Virginia conducts fair, honest, and democratic elections, and there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in Virginia."
Connecticut's Secretary of State, Denise Merrill, said she would "share publicly-available information with the Kobach Commission while ensuring that the privacy of voters is honored by withholding protected data." She added, however, that Kobach "has a lengthy record of illegally disenfranchising eligible voters in Kansas" and that "given Secretary Kobach's history we find it very difficult to have confidence in the work of this Commission."
Under federal law, each state must maintain a central file of registered voters. States collect different amounts of information on voters. While the files are technically public records, states usually charge fees to individuals or entities who want to access them. Political campaigns and parties typically use these files to compile their massive voter lists.
In May, Trump created a commission to investigate alleged acts of voter fraud after he claimed, without evidence, that 3 million to 5 million undocumented immigrants voted illegally in the 2016 election. The commission is chaired by Kobach, who is the Kansas secretary of state and a voter-fraud hard-liner.
Earlier this month, a federal judge fined Kobach $1,000 for “presenting misleading arguments in a voting-related lawsuit,” according to Politico.
Advocates for voting rights and civil liberties are also sounding alarms over the letter. “The concern is that this is going to be used to justify regressive and disenfranchising federal law,” Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the democracy program at New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, said in an interview.
Vanita Gupta, chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and former head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said on Twitter that the letter is “laying the groundwork for voter suppression, plain & simple.”
The White House press office did not return a request for comment on this article. A spokesman for Kobach in the Kansas secretary of state's office referred an inquiry to an email address listed in the commission's letter. The commission did not return a request sent to that email address.
Trump and his allies have said the commission's work is necessary to prevent what they call widespread instances of voter fraud. But evidence for such fraud is exceedingly thin. Kobach has made it a central issue of his tenure in Kansas and has secured nine voter-fraud convictions. Most were older Republican voters, and at least one claims he was targeted for an “honest mistake.”
Academics who have studied the issue for decades say that voter fraud — particularly of the type that strict voter-identification laws championed by Kobach and others are intended to combat — is vanishingly rare and that voter-ID requirements are a burdensome solution to a practically nonexistent problem. A federal judge ruled that some of Kobach's proposed ID requirements constituted a “mass denial of a fundamental constitutional right.”
While civil-liberties advocates are concerned with what Kobach might do with what would amount to a nationwide voter file, privacy advocates worry about the implications of making such data available to the public, as the commission says it intends to do. It hasn't specified how it would make the data available.
“Why does a random member of the public . . . need to know when you last voted and what your political party is?” asked the Brennan Center's Perez. “I think that access to this data in the wrong hands could always leave the opportunity for mischief. In this particular instance, I'm worried about harassment as well.”
States are “stewards of [this] public information,” Perez said. “Once it leaves their hands in this way, there's no telling whose going to get it, and how, and what they're using it for.”