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What States Can And Can't Do With Voter Data


Last week, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity sent out a request for each state's voter information. In response, more than 40 states and the District of Columbia have said they either will not or cannot provide the commission with all the information it seeks with some pretty blunt language. The state of Wisconsin is going to charge the commission over $12,000 for its data. And Mississippi's Republican secretary of state said in a statement, quote, "they can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico. And Mississippi is a great state to launch from."

Most states say they can't give over certain data because of state laws. Rick Hasen joins us to explain. He's a professor of law and political science at UC, Irvine Law School. And he's in our studio in Culver City. Welcome.

RICK HASEN: Good to be with you.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So first off, tell us what data the president's voting commission wants.

HASEN: Well, there's just a whole laundry list of things, voters' names, addresses, last four of their Social Security numbers, partisan affiliation. But it says whatever is publicly available. And so each state has its own rules as to who can access voter data, what part of the voter data is publicly available and what it can be used for.

MARTÍNEZ: State to state, there seems to be different interpretations of what public information is. It varies, doesn't it?

HASEN: It does. But there's also another problem, which is that the information that some states will give out is given out on a condition that it won't be used for other purposes. Now, initially, the president's commission indicated that all the information that would be sent in would be publicly available, which makes it sound like they would be publishing lists of the names and all of this personal information of millions of voters. There are a lot of concerns about this. There are concerns about whether this might violate federal privacy laws in addition to state laws. So there's a lot that still has to be sorted out.

MARTÍNEZ: So, yeah, red states and blue states seemingly arm in arm in this one. Is this a rare moment of bipartisanship?

HASEN: I wouldn't actually call it bipartisanship because I think that the red-state election officials and the blue-state election officials are motivated by different things. In the red states, there's a lot of concern about federal overtake of state election processes. These states have been very protective of their right to run their elections as they see fit. And they don't want federal interference. On the Democratic side, there's a very different concern.

Kris Kobach and a couple of the other members of the commission have reputations for being people who very strongly argue that massive voter fraud is a big problem. And they've advocated for laws that make it harder for people to register and to vote, such as laws that require documentary proof of citizenship before you're allowed to vote in an election. So you have secretaries of state like Alex Padilla of California saying he's not going to participate in something that seems like a means of voter suppression. So two very different motivations - but aimed at the same end, which is stopping this commission from collecting all of this data.

MARTÍNEZ: Can you see, though, any way where maybe the administration can pull it back a little bit, regroup and ask in a different way, make a different case?

HASEN: Well, this whole commission is proceeding in a very unusual way. You have the president making completely unsubstantiated claims that millions of people fraudulently voted in the election. One of the only people in the country who supported him in this claim, which has no evidence backing it up, is Kris Kobach. He's been made the head of the commission. The commission has more Republicans than Democrats. It has more prominent Republicans than Democrats. And this request for information was sent out before the commission ever met, where there could've been vetting of what the letter could've said.

I don't think this is salvageable. They haven't instilled confidence in people on the left or the right that this commission is going to engage in a fair look at all of the problems in the election - not just the voter fraud that the president has talked about but also concerns about voter suppression and, importantly for, I think, everyone, concerns about hacking of the election system. I think the alternative is something else and not this commission.

MARTÍNEZ: Rick Hasen is a professor at UC, Irvine Law School. Thank you very much for being with us.

HASEN: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.