As America celebrated another Independence Day, amidst the fireworks and cookouts, it was and is appropriate to remember one of her foundations of freedom: the ballot box. As one of the four boxes of liberty, the ballot box symbolizes one’s right to vote to elect a government which defends our freedom.
But the ballot box only protects freedom if votes are freely cast by eligible voters and election results accurately reflect the intent of all voters. As former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell succinctly stated in 2008: “Every eligible adult citizen has a constitutional right to vote. Each citizen also has the right to not have their legitimate vote diluted by fraud.”
President Trump established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to ensure these prin[ciples continue to exist in American elections. Despite the Commission’s important purpose and the work it plans to do to help states better administer their elections, liberal leadership and the media use every possible opportunity to disparage the effort, mostly because Republicans have taken the lead on this endeavor.
Last week, Commission Vice Chair and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach sent a letter to chief election officials in every state that set off another round of manufactured, faux outrage and misleading headlines. What was in this letter that had everyone up in arms? A request for input from the states on a variety of election administration questions and suggestions about how the Commission could best help the states, and a request that the states provide already publicly available voter data.
Unlike previous presidential election commissions, this Commission is taking the unprecedented step of not only recognizing states’ primary role in administering and protecting the integrity of elections, but in also asking states how the Commission can be of help to them. Instead of taking a top-down (federal-to-state) approach, the Commission has given the states the opportunity to participate in the process and has asked for their input in recommending goals for the Commission. If states have identified issues with their own election administration, the Commission has given them the opportunity to outline those issues and what can be done to fix them. If states have systems that work well and could benefit other states, the Commission has given them the opportunity to share their expertise. If states object to the Commission or are concerned about what its ultimate report will contain, the Commission has given them the opportunity to express those concerns.
The second part of the letter asks each state to provide “publicly available voter roll data for [your state], including, if publicly available under the laws of your state,” personal data typically recorded as part of a voter’s voter registration record. As stated twice in that short portion of the request, the Commission is requesting only publicly available voter registration data.
As any voter who receives a mailbox full of political campaign ads in the weeks leading up to an election realizes, at least part of a person’s voter registration record is public. States have different rules regarding what data is public, who can access it, the procedure for accessing it, and so on. Some states restrict access to candidates, political parties, and registered PACs. The Commission only requested data that a member of the public could obtain by jumping through the designated governmental hoops.
Sadly—as has been far too common in recent months—the mainstream media’s reporting has twisted the letter into a threat by the Trump administration to gather and publish confidential information about every voter in the country. Headlines tout the states’ non-compliance with the letter, claiming that some 44 states plus the District of Columbia are refusing to provide the information requested by the Commission.
The truth is that 29 states are providing publicly available voter registration information, as determined by their state’s law, and just 18 states are not providing the data. This is hardly the massive, overwhelming resistance to the Commission portrayed in the media. And this is only part of the whole picture. State laws in Tennessee and North Dakota do not allow release of voter registration data to the Commission. Yet, these states are being portrayed by media as being non-compliant when, in fact, their hands are just tied by their own laws.
States ought to frequently review their own voter registration rolls, and providing the public portion of these records to the Commission for review should be easy if the state is regularly assessing the data. Rhode Island has found 150,000 voters on the rolls who should not be registered and has worked to clean its records in the past few years. States should follow Rhode Island’s example by reviewing and cleaning their own voter registration rolls, and the Commission wishes to assist and assess this effort.
Reviewing public voter registration data can help show the strengths and weaknesses of a state’s voter registration systems and processes. Messy voter rolls lead to many problems at the polls such as long lines and misidentified voters. These problems can ultimately open the door to fraud and erode the public’s confidence in election results. As the Commission on Federal Election Reform chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III succinctly stated: “The electoral system cannot inspire public confidence if no safeguards exist to deter or detect fraud or to confirm the identity of voters.”
The letter from the Commission is a promising start to its work to protect American freedom by protecting election integrity. Liberals and the mainstream media seem determined to obstruct the Commission at every turn. However, contrary to their inflammatory rhetoric, the Commission’s work will be an open, transparent project and all Americans should pay attention as the Commission formally begins with an open hearing July 19.
Ronald L. Hicks, Jr., is Vice President for Communications of the Republican National Lawyers Association and a Partner at Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP. All opinions expressed are his personal opinions.