Trump Wins Ruling Allowing Voter Panel to Gather Information

Updated on
  • Federal judge allows effort to probe claims of voter fraud
  • Advocacy group sought details on data would be safeguarded

The Panel Hunting Trump's Voter Fraud Claims

President Donald Trump’s election integrity commission got a judge’s green light to collect data about U.S. voters even though many states are resisting its request that they hand over information.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly on Monday rejected a privacy group’s challenge to the collection effort and its demand that the commission reveal how the data will be safeguarded. But the decision, which the judge described as “highly technical,” may not be the last word as states weren’t part of the lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and aren’t compelled to comply.

The ruling is a rare win for an administration that’s been ensnared in litigation over the president’s immigration, environmental and regulatory agendas. Kris Kobach, the commission’s vice chairman and most public face, hailed the outcome in a statement, calling it “a major victory for government accountability, transparency and the public’s right to know about the integrity of our elections processes.”

Trump created the panel in May, saying he lost the popular vote because of fraud when he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton. The commission contacted state election officials requesting publicly available voter data, including names, addresses, birth dates and the final four digits of social security numbers. The panel also sought data on election-related criminal convictions since 2000 and ideas on how to improve security.

Numerous states refused to provide some or all of the records sought, citing state laws and concerns about what the commission plans to do with the information. The commission halted collection efforts on July 10, pending the court’s ruling.

Public Information

EPIC, as the Washington-based privacy group is known, sued to halt the data-gathering, saying the panel didn’t weigh the impact of its request on privacy as required by law.

EPIC contends that without a privacy impact assessment, as required by the 2002 E-Government Act, the aggregation of voters’ personal data threatened to harm U.S. citizens. Justice Department lawyers said there was no threat to privacy because the information would be uploaded via a secure U.S. Army website and transferred to White House computers. EPIC’s objection to that plan prompted the government to abandon it in favor of storing the data on a computer system run by the director of White House Information Technology.

In a July 7 hearing, Justice Department lawyer Elizabeth Shapiro told Kollar-Kotelly the commission isn’t covered by the law and challenged the group’s right to pursue the case. EPIC said its members are U.S. citizens whose privacy rights were threatened by the data collection.

Kollar-Kotelly said the group couldn’t sue under E-Government Act and that another law didn’t apply because neither the commission nor the White House technology office qualified as a federal agency. She also said EPIC had not shown it would suffer irrevocable harm from the release of information that’s already publicly available.

‘Push Forward’

“EPIC will push forward,” lead counsel Marc Rotenberg said in a statement. “The Commission cannot evade privacy obligations by playing a shell game with the nation’s voting records.”

Kobach said the panel was seeking information routinely released to candidates, political parties and the public, adding that it would continue to seek the data and “identify opportunities to improve election integrity.”

Vice President Mike Pence chairs the 12-member Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Kobach is Kansas secretary of state. Both men are Republicans. The other 10 members split evenly between the parties.

At the panel’s first full meeting on July 19, Trump criticized states that refuse to produce information. “One has to wonder what they’re worried about,” he said. “There’s something. There always is.”

The case is Electronic Privacy Information Center v. Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, 17-cv-1320, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

— With assistance by Bob Van Voris

(Updates with commission’s comment in third paragraph.)
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