The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Trump’s nationwide voter data request could lead to voter suppression

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach talks in his Topeka, Kan., office on May 12, 2016. (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

President Trump's Election Integrity Commission is asking all 50 states to turn over all publicly available voter registration data, including highly sensitive information about voters' political affiliation, Social Security numbers, criminal history and military status.

Voting rights groups immediately pushed state governors to reject the request, saying it would put a massive trove of information in the hands of people who couldn't be trusted with it. The request was initiated by commission co-chair Kris Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas and a fervent believer that voter fraud is widespread despite decades of evidence to the contrary.

In Kansas, Kobach championed the use of Crosscheck, a multistate database of voter registration information that authorities use to check whether voters are registered in two states. The system works primarily by matching voters' names and dates of birth — if the same name and date of birth show up for voters in two different states, the system flags them as possible double registrations.

Kobach has said he's interested in using a similar process to compare state voter roll data to a federal database of legal immigrants, creating what Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, calls “Crosscheck on steroids.”

Researchers have found that Crosscheck's matching algorithms are highly inaccurate. A recent working paper by researchers at Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Microsoft found that Crosscheck's algorithm returns about 200 false positives for every one legitimate instance of double registration it finds.

“We're concerned about unlawful voter purging, which has been something that Kris Kobach has been leading the charge,” said Vanita Gupta of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former head of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

“It's a real concern that he's building a nationwide database of voters,” Gupta added. “The question is: How does this data get used?”

An expansion of the Crosscheck system would be “a recipe for massive amounts of error,” according to elections expert Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School. “When you've got hundreds of millions of records, and thousands of John Smiths, trying to figure out which of them are your John Smith without making a mistake is well nigh impossible.”

The commission has not made any public statements about what it intends to do with the voter roll data it receives from states. A representative for Kobach in the Kansas Secretary of State's office referred all inquires to the commission, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Trump created the commission in May after he claimed, without evidence, that 3 million to 5 million undocumented immigrants voted illegally in the 2016 election. Kobach has appeared on cable news outlets making similar claims.

“This commission has been, from the beginning, an effort to sell Trump's lie that he won the popular vote,” Ho said. “Kobach's echoed that sentiment himself on camera. Now they've set up this commission that's going to create phony findings to support that lie.”

Some of Kobach's voter ID requirements have been struck down in federal court, with one federal judge ruling that they constituted “mass denial of a fundamental constitutional right.” And earlier this month, a federal judge fined Kobach $1,000 for “presenting misleading arguments in a voting-related lawsuit,” according to Politico.

“It's crazy that the administration would now expect every voter in the country to turn over their personal data to this person,” Ho said.

Levitt said he is concerned that the commission has "not thoroughly thought through" the implications of what it's asking for. He notes that the letter invited states to send sensitive voter roll information over email, which is highly insecure.

Levitt also calls the commission's July 14 deadline for sending the data "ludicrous," adding "there is no national system of records with hundreds of millions of datapoints that anyone has built reliably in two weeks."

One final red flag in the commission's request, according to Levitt, is the inclusion of data on voters' party affiliation. While states are allowed to maintain this information, the federal Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits the federal government from keeping records of voters' party affiliation except in rare circumstances, Levitt said.

Levitt said the Privacy Act was enacted following the Watergate scandal and concerns about Richard Nixon collecting personal information on American voters.

“Whether someone is eligible to vote or not does not depend on what party they are registered with,” Levitt said. “It is difficult for me to understand what legitimate use there might be” for that data.

However, he added, “It's not difficult to imagine the propaganda value behind it.”