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State BOE decision to hand over voter data sparks anger

The state Board of Elections quietly voted this week to turn over some data about New York’s voters to a Trump administration panel looking at whether there was mass voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election.

The move makes New York the first state to comply with the controversial request, after officials initially said they would resist the request.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in June that the state would not comply with requests from the panel — which is authorized by President Donald Trump and headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — to turn over information about New York’s voters.

Among other things, the panel is seeking evidence of massive voter fraud, something Cuomo has said is a “myth.” Many election experts agree with the governor that such fraud in the U.S. is highly unlikely. Two requests from the panel were rejected.

This week, though, the state’s Board of Elections agreed to a third request, made through the state’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL.

Saying there was no lawful reason not to comply, the board — made up of two Democratic and two Republican commissioners — voted to turn over names, addresses, birthdates and records of when registered voters turned up at the polls. 

The news set off alarm bells, and the phones started ringing at the state’s League of Women Voters offices, said the League’s Jennifer Wilson.

“It’s really upsetting,” Wilson said. “People want to be taken off the rolls and give up their right to vote because they’re so afraid of what the federal government could do potentially with this information.”

Wilson said states already keep voter records, and there’s no reason for the federal government to duplicate the efforts. The data will be held on White House computers that Pence will oversee.

Susan Lerner with the good-government group Common Cause finds the board’s action “disturbing.”

She said that even though voter data is covered under FOIL, there are limits. The law said the voter data can be used only for election purposes — for instance, candidates for office who are trying to get potential supporters to go out and vote. Lerner said because of the questions raised over the Pence panel, the Board of Elections should have done more to resist the request.

“The Board of Elections was on notice that there’s a possibility that the Pence commission would misuse the voter rolls and make them available to the general public on the internet without restriction,” Lerner said. “The Board did nothing to protect New York voters.”

Voting rights advocates also are angry about the way the board’s decision was revealed. Wilson was at the routine Board of Elections meeting on Aug. 2. She said the item was not on the meeting’s public agenda, and it caught everyone by surprise.

“They hadn’t said anything about it the entire meeting, and then suddenly as everyone was packing up, they mention that, ‘Oh yes, we have the FOIL request,’ ” Wilson said. “ ‘And that we’re going to comply with the FOIL request.’ ”

Cuomo appeared to also be caught off-guard by the Board of Elections action. He issued a statement late in the day saying that he will continue to resist any more requests from the federal panel to obtain private information about voters, and he said the board is not handing over Social Security numbers, criminal history or any other sensitive personal data.

In the statement, Cuomo said New York will “never provide private voter information to anyone, especially a politically motivated organization seeking to perpetuate the myth of voter fraud.”

Lerner said Common Cause has filed a federal lawsuit. 

“We hope the court will step in where the New York Board of Elections has not,” Lerner said. “And protect our private information.”

The suit charges that the Pence commission requests are a violation of the Privacy Act, which was passed after the Watergate scandal and revelations that the Nixon administration compiled information on political opponents.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.