Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Trump's "Voter Fraud" Commission

Even though Donald J. Trump won the electoral college vote and was sworn in as President of the United States six months ago, he is still rankled by the idea that he did not win the popular vote.

Unable to accept that fact, a few weeks ago he tried to do something to prove what has become his fixed belief, often stated, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because of the "millions of illegal voters."  He has never cited any evidence.  He has none.  But he heard it said by alt-right sources, and it clicked with his paranoia and his craven need to remove any doubt about his winning.

That's our president, folks.   And now he's in position to do something.   So he appointed a commission to look into the states voter registration rolls and voting procedures.   He made VP Mike Pence Chair of the commission, but that's clearly a figure-head appointment.   The real bulldog is Co-Chair Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State and candidate for governor.   Kobach has national notoriety (or fame, depending on your politics) for his fierce, mean-spirited battles against illegal immigration and against voter fraud.  He calls himself "the ACLU's worst nightmare."   In fact, the ACLU has sued him four times for overly restrictive policies, since he became Kansas' Secretary of State in 2010.

Kobach has repeatedly been shot down by the courts, which only burnishes his image among the right-wing, Trump-supporting conservative base.  Kobach's first initiative for this commission was to write to all fifty Secretaries of State (or the equivalent offices that handle voter registration) asking for information about every person listed on their voter registration rolls, including which party they voted for in recent elections, email addresses, social security numbers, and criminal records.

This produced a tremendous backlash, fueled by suspicions of the motives and uses which the Trump administration intended such sensitive information.  There were concerns about voters' privacy, as well as concerns that it would lead to more restrictive laws to suppress the vote among minorities.   At latest count, 48 of 50 states have said they will not comply, at least not fully, with the request.

At the same time, there is also great frustration that Trump is focusing on the wrong problem.  Voter impersonation and duplicate voting, which is what they really mean when they talk about "voter fraud," have repeatedly proved to be practically non-existent.  Yet Trump seems totally unconcerned about the very real problem of suppression of minority voting, whether by restrictive voting laws, petty regulations, gerrymandering, or outright intimidation.

It's unclear what the commission's next move is, given this resistance from the states.  Several lawsuits by privacy and civil liberties groups have essentially put their work on hold.   But NBC News' Dartunorro Clark has just reported what is news to me, and maybe to most folks, including the president.

Clark's report introduces Shane Hamlin, the executive director of a non-profit group, the Election Registration Information Center (ERIC).  Hamlin says, "There's no reason to re-invent the wheel when we're already here . . . and we do it very well."  ERIC is a voluntary, non-partisan group, currently made up of 20 states and the D.C., that shares voter data "to root our possible fraud, ensure more accurate voter rolls and encourage registration."   They do it in a highly responsible, secure, ethical manner.

Hamlin says he was stunned when he saw the Trump commission letter because of the poor planning, lack of concern for privacy, and the general lax attitude toward security.   [In fact, as an aside, the commission has already demonstrated just this point by posting online the protest comments made to the commission from individuals.   They posted them without removing emails addresses, phone numbers, and in a few cases, social security numbers.

In contrast, Hamlin says ERIC was put together by a core group of technology, data, and privacy experts along with state election officials.  They spent more than three years "building intricate and extensive security protocols, agreements and methodologies before it was officially launched in 2012."

Hamlin sees no evidence of any such frameworks being in place by the Trump commission.   Instead, their first step seems to have been asking states to turn over millions of voter files with no safeguards to protect privacy.    David Becker, another elections expert who was part of the ERIC team, says of the Trump project:  "Every chance they had, they went the wrong way.  This is a textbook study on how not to use data."

ERIC takes great care to "anonymize" data before it is shared in order to prevent compromise of personal information.   Sensitive data is encrypted into code if it needs to be transmitted, and they have layers of protection against hacking.  Hamlin says that "raw data is never stored in a central location or shared publicly, contrary to what the Trump panel said it planned to do."  They would gather data on every voter in the United States -- in one place -- just begging Russia to hack into it with disastrous results.

ERIC's main activity and reason for being is to assist states in keeping their voter rolls up to date.  They have access to drivers licenses and voter registrations in participating states, as well as social security records of deaths, and national change of address information.

Some participating states are also using data from ERIC in a positive way to reach out to eligible voters who are not registered, such as someone who has recently moved into the state.

It seems that Trump's ill-conceived, paranoia-driven effort is yet another example of amateurish flailing about without forethought or expertise.   A wise administration would have talked to experts, found out about and learned from a program like ERIC, and put someone in charge who cares about doing it right.

Instead, Donald Trump knew the answer he wanted, and he chose the man who would be most likely to give him that answer.  Kobach seems just as obsessed with his own (warped) beliefs as does Trump.   So never mind using a credible process to get the right answer.

It's time to junk the whole mess that was looking in the wrong place, using the wrong methods, to come up with the wrong answer to a non-existing problem.  But that's the Trump world we now inhabit.


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