Editorial: Voter Privacy at Stake

Published: 7/11/2017 10:00:03 PM
Modified: 7/12/2017 10:42:57 AM

At age 68, ​New Hampshire’s Bill Gardner is the nation’s longest-serving secretary of state. A Democrat, he took office in 1976 and has been re-elected by the Legislature every two years since then. During that time, he has made a name for himself by successfully defending the primacy of the New Hampshire presidential primary against all pretenders — that is, any state with the effrontery to challenge its first-in-the-nation status. Given all his experience and deep immersion in New Hampshire political culture, it’s hard to explain a recent lapse of judgment on Gardner’s part that threatens to compromise the voting data of nearly a million Granite Staters. 

Gardner intends to yield data on more than 984,000 registered voters in the Granite State to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, created by President Donald Trump in the wake of his spurious claim that he was denied victory in the popular vote last November because millions of people voted illegally. The commission, of which Gardner is a member, has requested voluminous “publicly available” information from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including a list of all registered voters (first and last name and middle initial), their addresses, dates of birth, party affiliation, the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, and their “voting history” — that is, which general elections they have voted in from 2006 onward and which party primaries they have participated in. The commission plans to make public all the information it receives.

In New Hampshire, statewide voter information that is deemed public consists of names, addresses and party affiliation. (Gardner also plans to provide voting history back to 2006.) He told The Associated Press that his rationale for doing so is to restore public trust in the electoral process at a time when its integrity is in doubt.

This ignores the fact that the only reason that some Americans have lost faith in the integrity of elections is that Republican politicians and conservative media have conspired in recent years to shake that faith by fulminating endlessly about widespread “voter fraud,” something that election officials around the country and scholars who study voting have concluded doesn’t exist. The mere assertion without evidence that something is taking place does not mean it ought to be investigated. The only credible allegation that the integrity of the 2016 election was compromised — that Russia helped orchestrate Trump’s election — is already being investigated in Washington by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Nonetheless, Republican politicians across the country have used this manufactured issue to impose new restrictions on voting that are pretty clearly aimed at groups that tend to vote Democratic — young people, the poor and minorities. It’s not very hard to connect the dots here and to conclude that the advisory commission’s agenda is to assemble a national voter database to aid in the suppression and intimidation of disfavored groups.

A lawsuit filed by the New Hampshire affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union may prevent Gardner from providing the requested information. The ACLU contends that under state law, publicly available information about voters on the statewide central voter registration database can only be viewed at the state records and archives center and may not be printed, duplicated or transmitted in any way. Hard copies of the public checklist in municipalities can be obtained, but only on a town-by-town basis and by paying a minimum $25 fee in each town. In fact, only political parties, political committees and candidates for New Hampshire office — none of which describes the advisory commission — are allowed to obtain a copy of the statewide public checklist.

State Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, a leading privacy advocate who helped write the relevant state law and who is a co-plaintiff with the ACLU, explains this curiously bifurcated system of access this way: “The Legislature carefully designed strict restrictions on the sharing of voter information for good reason: to protect voter privacy. These protections would be rendered meaningless by the transfer of this data to the Commission, which has established no security protocols and intends to post everything it receives online.” The intent of the law was to make sure that statewide voter information was available only for political purposes, he said.

The commission's request for information from all states is now on hold while it is being challenged in federal court in Washington, D.C. We hope that it will not take a judge’s order for Gardner to come to his senses and join 20 other states and the District of Columbia in refusing to cooperate in this charade. He’s been around long enough to know better.

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