The state Board of Elections quietly voted this week to turn over some data on 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 it.
Governor Andrew Cuomo said in June that the state would not comply with requests from a panel authorized by President Trump, and headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, to turn over information on New York’s voters. Among other things the panel is seeking evidence of mass voter fraud, something Cuomo has said is a “myth”. Many election experts agree with the governor that massive voter 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 from the federal panel, made through the state’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL. The board, made up of two Democratic and two Republican commissioners, voted to turn over to the panel names, addresses, birthdates and records of when registered voters turned up at the polls, saying they had no lawful reason not to comply.
The news set off alarm bells, and the phones started ringing at the state’s League of Women Voters offices, says 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 says 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 Vice President Pence will oversee.
Susan Lerner, with the good government group Common Cause, finds the Board’s action “disturbing." She says that even though voter data is covered under FOIL, there are limits. The law says the voter data can only be used for election purposes, for instance candidates for office who are trying to get potential supporters to go out and vote. Lerner says 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 are also angry over the way the Board’s decision was revealed. Wilson, with the League of Women Voters, was at the routine Board of Elections meeting on August 2. She says 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’.”
Governor 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 says the Board is not handing over social security numbers, criminal history, or any other sensitive personal data.
Cuomo in the statement says New York will “never provide private voter information to anyone, especially a politically-motivated organization seeking to perpetuate the myth of voter fraud."
Lerner says Common Cause has filed a federal lawsuit.
"Trying to stop the commission from collecting the voter rolls from all of the states and to protect the privacy of the information," Lerner said. "We hope the courts will step in where the New York Board of Elections has not 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.