On Wednesday, word arrived of three seemingly unrelated events. While each of these events has broad implications for the security and integrity of American elections, the nature and timing of each of these—all on the same day—raise serious questions. The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, or PACEI, sent letters out to every state requesting that they provide:
“publicly available under the laws of your state, the full first and last names of all registrants, middle names or initials if available, addresses, dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information.”
They requested that this information be provided within 16 days, via e-mail or via the Safe Access File Exchange, a secure FTP site. It is notable that the PACEI does not state where or how this information will be stored or protected, other than to admit that all these files will be made publicly available, and furthermore does not state what it will do with this sensitive and personal information, other than “fully analyze” it.
It’s very important to note that most of this data is not available to the public, as it is highly sensitive personally identifiable information (PII). For instance, in most states the date of birth, Social Security number (last four digits or otherwise), felon status, military status, and other information is not, and should not, be made available to the public, and the commissioners on the PACEI should certainly know that. Can you imagine making publicly available to anyone with an internet connection, foreign or domestic, a complete list of all military voters and their home addresses, let alone including birthdates and social security numbers?
Furthermore, without that PII, using only the public information regarding identity (usually name and address only), it is virtually impossible to use that data to analyze anything. The states and those of us who have expertise in working with voter registration data will tell you that you need several other reference points (usually the PII) to effectively match a record with another record and conclusively state those records relate to the same individual. For instance, if you have a “Sean O’Hara” in one state living at 123 First Street, and a “Sean O’Hara” living at 123 First Avenue in another state, can you know that these two records relate to the same Sean O’Hara? Of course not. So a choice must be made—either collect enough data, including sensitive data, to make the analysis useful (which requires a comprehensive security plan), or get virtually no utility from the data whatsoever. It appears that the PACEI has chosen the latter, but it’s unclear why.