It should come as little surprise that President Trump’s election integrity commission has, in its first official move, run afoul of longstanding legal norms. After all, the commission was founded on a false premise. And its vice chair and apparent intellectual architect is Kris Kobach, Kansas’ Secretary of State, who has made a name for himself as a connoisseur of voter suppression. (He was also recently sanctioned by a federal court for “deceptive conduct and lack of candor.”)
On June 28, Kobach signed a letter from the commission sent to every Secretary of State in the country. The letter sought incredibly broad, and highly sensitive, information about every American voter, including (among other things) names, social security number information, party affiliation, voting history since 2006, and records of any felony convictions. It asked to receive this information by July 14.
The inherent problems with this nationwide fishing expedition are clear: the information is far broader than any legitimate study of election integrity could warrant, reinforcing suspicions that the whole enterprise is a vehicle for voter suppression; it violates federal privacy protections for the government to assemble a master database of voting records, party affiliation and other sensitive information; in an era of Russian hacking of election systems, the centralization of this information – not the mention letter’s invitation to transmit it via email – creates a massive target for hackers foreign and domestic.
Dropping this sweeping request on the nation’s election officials also violated federal law. The Paperwork Reduction Act, a law with a longstanding pedigree (if an uninspiring name), governs agencies that want to issue potentially burdensome information requests. The statute covers requests that are mandatory or voluntary, aimed at individuals or organizations. The guiding idea behind the PRA is simple: before the federal government enlists individuals, companies, organization, or state governments into potentially burdensome fact-finding, it should have a good justification and a well thought out plan.