When the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity held its first meeting via conference call last week and discussed a forthcoming request to states for voter information, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap (D), a member of the commission, cautioned it had to be careful.
If the panel wanted election officials across the country to provide it with voter information, it had to be delicate about how it worded the request or else it would be seen as demanding highly sensitive voter details.
“I had suggested only going after information that was legally publicly available and doing it as a request and not as a demand,” Dunlap said in an interview. “I said, you want to be careful how you go at this because election officials are very sensitive guardians of this information, so you want to make sure you’re asking for it, not demanding it, and that it really should only cover the information that is publicly available in your state.”
The commission, Dunlap said, was receptive to his suggestion.
The panel agreed they didn’t need to review the actual language of the request before it was sent to states, because only Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), the commission’s vice chair, would sign his name to it. The letter Kobach did send out appears to heed Dunlap’s advice. It says he is seeking “publicly available voter roll data” ― including, “if publicly available,” information like the last four digits of voters’ Social Security Numbers, felony convictions and voter histories.
The request ignited a fierce and bipartisan backlash, as dozens of states have refused to comply in full with the request for information. Election officials in some states have said they flat-out won’t comply with the request, while others have said they are barred by state law from disclosing sensitive voter information. Even several members of the commission, including Kobach and Dunlap, have said they cannot legally disclose all the information the committee is seeking.
Aside from Dunlap’s warning, there was little objection on the commission when Kobach brought up the approaching request to states.
“The conversation on the committee, at the call, was, ‘Well if it’s public information, then we’re OK with it. It would be fine to ask that,’” said David Dunn, a former Democratic Arkansas lawmaker who is serving on the panel.
Kobach has harshly criticized states for not complying with the commission’s request and said it is only seeking information available to the public.
“It’s idiotic,” Kobach told The Washington Times on Sunday. “These states make the information available to the public, but they don’t want a presidential commission to take a serious look at it? That makes no sense at all.”
On Wednesday evening, the White House put out a statement saying media tallies that 44 states so far refused to comply with the commission were “fake news.”
As states have refused to respond, members of the commission say they haven’t heard from Kobach or the panel. One commissioner, Luis Borunda, the deputy secretary of state of Maryland, resigned from the commission on Monday, but it’s unclear why.
Dunlap didn’t see the letter before states received it, but when he began to see the backlash to it, he was surprised.
“When the news hit about the request, I thought, ‘Oh my God, they must have screwed this up’ because what I was hearing ― you know, not literally ― you would’ve thought that people were being rounded up based on this communication, and there is so much outrage and vitriol.”
But after finding and reading Maine’s copy of the letter, Dunlap said he thought it was just like a regular request for public information.
“We’re going to treat this like we would treat any request for information and if they qualify for the publicly available information, we give it to them,” he said.
Dunn, too, said he was surprised by the refusal of states to release information, because he thought the letter clearly says the committee is only seeking public information.
Despite the backlash, Dunlap said he didn’t think the letter was mishandled, nor did he believe outrage was based on a misunderstanding of the kind of information the commission was requesting.
“People are very sensitive about their voter data. Much more so than I think many of us had calculated up until now,” he said. “I think it speaks more to the polarization of the country as to how it was received. I think maybe that was underestimated a little bit by everybody, including me.”