Every state in the union was sent a letter last week seeking data from its voter rolls — including names, addresses, dates of birth, political party affiliation and the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers. The request came from Kris Kobach, vice chairman of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. States have responded in a variety of ways: About 20 have agreed to send publicly available data, including Kansas, where Kobach is secretary of state. Other states have said the commission can only have that data if they buy it. A few — including California and Mississippi — have said they won’t be complying with the request at all. The commission was created by President Trump to investigate improper and fraudulent voting — an issue the president has said he believes is widespread (most experts disagree). The states’ arguments against compliance with its request have centered on skepticism of the commission’s intentions, as well as issues of privacy and political autonomy. But experts who have worked with voter data said the letter raised some other red flags for them. They said that although the idea of compiling and analyzing voter data makes sense — states and academics have been working on it for years — they’re concerned that the commission may not be adequately prepared to do the data analysis work it seems to want to take on.
Just a few years ago, compliance with a letter like this would likely have been impossible. Until recently, many states did not have voter data stored in a centralized location or collected in a uniform way. In most cases, the records existed only on paper. “Ten years ago, if you wanted to get voter data from Pennsylvania, you had to call every single county,” said Samantha Luks, managing director of scientific research for the polling organization YouGov.
And although states have made huge strides in internal record-keeping consistency and accessibility — largely because of funding and rules connected to the Help America Vote Act of 2002 — experts say that the way data is collected and stored still varies widely from state to state and that the information is not available in an easily shareable format. “This letter was almost identical to the type of letter I’ve seen sent out by graduate students who don’t know about election administration,” said Charles Stewart, professor of political science at MIT and co-director of the Voting Technology Project. “It’s like, ‘Oh, gee, there’s 50 states and D.C. and it’s probably on a file somewhere and they’ll just put it on a thumb drive and send it to me. How hard can it be?’”