“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions who voted illegally,” tweeted Donald Trump on November 27, following his win. Perhaps in an effort to prove social media blather correct, Trump has issued an executive order creating the Presidential Advisory Committee on Election Integrity. The goals of the committee include “studying vulnerabilities in the voting systems that could lead to voter fraud,” which requires collecting a large amount of personal voter information from the states. After facing serious legal pushback, even his supporters are wondering about its legitimacy.
While the purity of the democratic process should be every citizen’s concern, the committee’s latest crusade, in violating privacy, has gone too far. In early July, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a suit against the committee claiming that the group collected personal data without securing a system in which to store that sensitive information––a direct violation of the E-Government Act of 2002. This led the committee to stop collecting partial social security numbers, voting histories, and other information to save face before a judge could block their efforts in response to EPIC’s emergency motion. However, a judge reversed this decision, insisting that the committee did not qualify as a federal agency, exempting them from complying with the E-Government Act’s regulations. This motion allowed the data collection to start up again.
Trump’s cries of voter fraud have little more than anecdotal evidence to back them up. The vast majority of empirical studies have proven just the opposite, giving more reason to prioritize privacy over voter fraud prevention. Even think tanks that support stricter penalties for voter fraud and enhanced voter ID regulations have not documented evidence of widespread fraud. For example, the Heritage Foundation’s issue page on voter fraud cites only a few hundred cases of any type of fraud ranging from impersonation to duplicate voting, to the “ineligible voting” referenced in Trump’s tweet. A few hundred cases is a negligible figure considering the number of votes cast. Other studies have found similar numbers, making it clear that, at the very least, this is an issue unworthy of an executive order.
Unfortunately for Trump, EPIC’s lawsuit was not the end of the legal battle. Upon the committee’s formation, Democrats took issue with its leadership, which was purely Republican. For this reason, the ACLU filed another suit for violating the Federal Advisory Committee Act’s (FACA) requirement that committees be “fairly balanced.” The lawsuit also takes issue with the committee’s lack of transparency. Because millions of eligible voters lack proper ID, stricter voter ID laws make it more difficult for everyone to vote, including legal residents.
Many Democrats argue that these policies amount to voter suppression and directly affect Democratic turnout, in addition to being discriminatory, since these policies disproportionately affect minority voters.
But Republicans also have raised concerns over voter privacy rights. After the committee chair and Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, sent out initial data requests to each state, 44 refused to cooperate fully in the interest of protecting their citizens’ rights to privacy. Most of the uncooperative states consider some or all of the data requested––including voter birthdates and partial social security numbers––too sensitive to release. Among the state officials who were not compliant with the data collection was Mississippi’s Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who responded to the request by inviting the committee to “jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Demanding that state level officials hand over citizens’ information from their independently administered registrations and elections is indeed an overreach of executive power. Voters have a right to prevent their personal data from being aggregated at a national level where it is subject to the whims of a privileged few that have failed, countless times, to keep information secure. This wasteful, invasive data collection should be stopped before voters’ sensitive information is left in the hands of Washington bureaucrats.
Lili Carneglia is a Young Voices advocate.