The White House on Thursday publicly released contact information of some voters who submitted comments expressing privacy concerns about a federal probe requesting voter data.
The disclosure came as the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity reviews public comments it received after Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), the commission’s vice chair, requested publicly available voter data from all 50 states. There was bipartisan concern about privacy after the request, and almost every state said it could not provide all of the information Kobach was seeking.
Some of the public comments the White House posted online about the request Thursday contain unredacted personal information about the senders, including in some cases addresses and phone numbers.
The White House did not seem to have a legal obligation to redact the names, and different federal agencies vary in what information they redact when they release public comments, said Bob Gellman, a privacy consultant who worked on Freedom of Information Act issues on Capitol Hill for two decades. A notice published July 5 in the Federal Register inviting the comments also included notification that the name and contact information of anyone who submitted a comment may be made public.
“These are public comments, similar to individuals appearing before [a] commission to make comments and providing name before making comments,” Marc Lotter, a spokesman for Vice President Mike Pence, the commission’s chair, said in a statement. “The Commission’s Federal Register notice asking for public comments and its website make clear that information ‘including names and contact information’ sent to this email address may be released.”
Many of the comments harshly criticize Kobach and the rest of the panel ― sometimes in colorful and expletive-filled emails ― and ask the probe not to release sensitive voter information.
“Public comments are often just that. What you submit, an agency makes public,” Gellman said in an email. ”Some agencies redact personal information from comments submitted. I’ve had my address, phone, and email redacted by an agency from a public comment (even though I was warned up front that what I submitted would be made public).”
Despite those warnings, some said it was unsettling for the commission to release any kind of personal information while it pledged to depersonalize and redact any identifiable voter information. The Washington Post also noted about half of the comments the commission published were submitted before the notice inviting them was published in the Federal Register.
Chris Lu, former White House Cabinet Secretary in the Obama administration and now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center, said the disclosure merited further investigation.
“This is either gross incompetence or a blatant attempt to intimidate those who disagree with the commission. Either way, it’s very troubling and should be investigated further,” Lu wrote in an email. He added he couldn’t recall the Obama White House releasing similar contact information.
Several people whose contact information was disclosed in the emails did not immediately return a request from HuffPost for comment.
Gellman said some federal agencies redacted personal information on public comments, but for the commission to do so would be time-consuming because there were over 30,000 public comments. People who submitted comments, he said, didn’t have to include personal information.
“When an agency gets tens of thousands of emailed comments from individuals, it can be quite a task to redact personal information (perhaps other than email addresses),” Gellman wrote.
Kobach has not been entirely consistent in his statements about the kind of voter information the commission will make public. In his initial June 28 letter to states, he said all documents provided to the committee would be made public, but he later said he only intended that to apply to non-sensitive information.