Trump slams states for pushing back on panel's voter data demand

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump fired off a tweet Saturday aimed at the growing number of secretaries of state resisting a broad request for data by his voter-fraud commission, including officials from deep red states whose support the controversy-laden White House can ill afford to lose.

“Numerous states are refusing to give information to the very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL,” Trump tweeted of officials from more than 20 states who so far have questioned the panel’s request. “What are they trying to hide?” Indiana, home of Vice President Mike Pence, and Mississippi, a state that voted heavily for the president, are among those states.

Trump’s taunt may have been meant to counter a backlash that could effectively scuttle much of the work of Presidential Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity before it begins. Officials on the panel said they planned to compare the state records to databases of undocumented immigrants and legal foreigners in order to determine if large numbers of unqualified voters are participating in U.S. elections.

Deploying sometimes colorful language, state officials have called the panel’s request for data that includes voters’ partial Social Security numbers inappropriate, and said they wouldn’t comply or would only provide information that was already publicly available.

“They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from,” Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, said in a statement released Friday.

States’ Rights

While the data request resonates with long-held Republican claims about illegal voting, the panel -- and by extension, the White House -- suddenly finds itself on what usually sympathetic state officials say is the wrong side of the issue of states’ rights.

The timing could hardly be worse. Saturday’s tweet capped a week during which Trump twice picked fights that alienated badly needed Republican allies: First, by supporting negative ads against Senator Dean Heller, the Nevada Republican who refused to support the Senate’s health-care bill, and then by using unusually coarse language to berate MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski. Those comments were condemned by a range of prominent Republicans, including two female senators whose support is crucial to passing the legislation.

The recent flare up adds to the commission’s existing credibility issues with election rights advocates and Democrats. Critics have complained that the panel is stacked with people who have long sought to make access to the polls more restrictive, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the panel’s vice chairman, and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

Paper Stock

Richard Hasen, a law professor and election expert at the University of California, Irvine, said Blackwell was widely criticized in 2004 for rejecting votes cast on paper that he determined was not the proper weight. Previous election commissions have tried to steer a less politicized course, and were often led by respected elder statesmen from both parties, he said.

“There are two things going on here,” Hasen said. “For Republican election administrators, this is a federalism issue. To people on the left, this is simply not a credible commission.”

On Friday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the refusal by state officials to comply was “mostly a political stunt” and that the commission is asking for publicly available data.

But many secretaries of state appeared to view the request differently.

‘Suppression’ Tool

North Carolina officials said in a statement that they’ll comply only with requests for public information and won’t turn over partial Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers or dates of birth, which are confidential under certain state or federal laws.

In Oklahoma, which Trump won in November by 36 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton, election officials plan to hand over publicly available voter rolls but won’t comply with requests for partial Social Security numbers.

Several other states announced that the president’s panel will get more limited data and would also have to pay for it, the way political campaigns do.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, said in a statement that he has “no intention of honoring this request,” and questioned the panel’s motives. The commission “at worse is a tool to commit large-scale voter suppression,” McAuliffe said.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement on Friday that she was “alarmed” at the request by the “so-called voter-fraud commission” for personal data and voting history “with absolutely no legal basis for doing so.”

More people are hit by lightning in the U.S. than commit in-person voter fraud, Feinstein said, citing the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.

Voters’ Trust

Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections project, said that some states require that only registered voters receive the kind of data requested by Kobach. In others, anyone who wants the information has to sign an oath testifying how it will be used. Some state officials are afraid that providing the data will undermine voters’ trust in the way they’re administering elections, she said.

“Being that Kobach is a the secretary of state, I’m baffled about the problem he has given his fellow secretaries of state,” Perez said. “He’s handing them both a legal and a political problem of significant proportions.”

Hasen said that whether the commission gets the requested data or not, he expects it to conclude that voter fraud is a huge problem which needs to be addressed by laws tightening identification requirements and restricting voter registration methods.

“This is a commission that is meant to bolster the president’s unsubstantiated claim that 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election,” Hasen said.

--With assistance from Mark Niquette

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