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Firestorm over call for info on elections

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 01. 2017 10:30PM


CONCORD - The sweeping demand from a new anti-voter fraud commission for state election officials to broadly turn over voter records has been met with bipartisan resistance while President Donald Trump doubled down Saturday on why he's asked for them in the first place.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner said voters have become so distrusting that many believe local officials have private information about them.

"The level of suspicion and downright cynicism seems to be at an all-time high," Gardner said. "We don't have boxes full of personal information about people in our archives. What we have is what we've publicly shared for decades."

But critics of Trump's Election Integrity Commission's broad request for extensive information about voters in all 50 states say the pushback is justified.

And it's bipartisan, as Democratic and Republican leaders from more than 20 states have rejected the call, many citing their own state laws that prevent turning over the data.

"This broad net the commission is throwing is all about trying to promote a narrative that's got no basis in reality, that there was rampant voter fraud in New Hampshire and other key states," said Democratic National Committeeman Peter Burling of Cornish.

"Whatever happened to New Hampshire's tradition of Live Free or Die? Just say no, Mr. Gardner."

Gardner, a longtime Democrat, and Gov. Chris Sununu, a first-term Republican, aren't saying no and instead are complying with the spirit but not the letter of the commission's request made through Vice Chairman Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state.

The information New Hampshire will give up is names, addresses, party affiliation and voting history dating back to 2006. Gardner said voting history includes whether a person voted in a general election and which party's ballot a voter took during a primary election.

"We fully intend to comply," Sununu said. "This is a bipartisan commission looking at integrity in the election process. That is something we take seriously here in the State of New Hampshire.

"All voter information in this state is public, and that's the information we'll be providing. Nothing else."

Gardner points out that private companies have been buying these voter imformation records for many election cycles at a cost of about $8,300 for each election.

Kobach wanted much more than that in his request of all states, including the last four digits of Social Security numbers, the birth dates of all voters and any records on criminal convictions for election law violations.

This is what bothered many public officials and privacy advocates.

"I am very concerned that the requested information would be used to create a national voter database that can be used to disenfranchise voters," said U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.

U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., made a plea to Gardner and Sununu to take a principled stand against the entire ask.

"In closing, I urge you to shield New Hampshire voters from this historic federal intrusion into law-abiding Americans' right to privacy whose only "offense" was exercising their Constitutional right to vote," Shea-Porter said in a statement.

"This could further dampen participation in our elections."

Tradition of privacy

New Hampshire state law requires the state to update the checklist after every election. The checklist shows which people voted in each election and which party ballot was taken in a primary.

"We keep the older checklists in the archives in boxes, so those records going back to 2006 are easily available," Gardner said.

He added that many citizens don't realize New Hampshire has a long tradition of protecting personal privacy when it comes to voter records.

"Very few states have a Neal Kurk," Gardner quipped, referring to state Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, who has led many legislative campaigns to prevent public disclosure of personal information whether it's on a driver's license, job application or voter files.

Gardner is a member of the integrity commission and took part in a conference call last week hosted by its chairman, Vice President Mike Pence.

The commission was formed last month after Trump claimed without any evidence that up to 3 million people voted fraudulently in the election. Trump asserted that "busloads from Massachusetts" came up to New Hampshire illegally to cast ballots, which narrowly gave Democrat Hillary Clinton the Granite State's four electoral votes.

During the 90-minute call, Pence spoke about the process the commission will follow to fulfill President Trump's mandate to determine whether more can be done to prevent voter fraud and increase public confidence in American elections, Gardner said.

"He said several times that we need to search for a common ground, it needs to be bipartisan, and I found that encouraging," Gardner said.

Sununu touched off sharp, partisan criticism Friday morning when he said on MSNBC that the state would honor the commission's request without qualifying it in any way. "Absolutely I think every state should comply. Any state not complying with this is simply playing politics," Sununu said.

ACLU-NH takes offense

The New Hampshire Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said full compliance with this request would violate our state's laws governing the public disclosure of voter information.

"We expect that the secretary of state will not honor any request to produce information that is private and confidential. Any transfer of information must be in full compliance with all state disclosure laws. The Commission should not be able to obtain information that is unavailable to any ordinary member of the public," said Gilles Bissonnette, the group's legal director.

Within a few hours, Sununu clarified the state would only be releasing information it already gives to any member of the public that requests it for a fee.

"Governor Sununu only supports releasing information that is already publicly available. Period," said Benjamin Vihstadt, the governor's spokesman.

Gardner said he hasn't decided whether to make the commission pay for the public records his office will produce.

The governors or top election officials in New York, Virginia, California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Massachusetts are among a number of states that have rejected outright the commission's request.

Ironically, the man who wrote the letter for the commission - Kansas Secretary of State Korbach - and another member from Illinois said their own state laws prevent them from turning over all the requested information about their voters.

President Trump himself tweeted Saturday morning about the reluctant response from so many states, "What are they trying to hide?"

The Mississippi secretary of state, Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, said Friday that he had not received a request from the commission, but colorfully suggested he would not honor one if it came.

"My reply would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from," Hosemann said in a statement. "Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our state's right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes."

The officials in many states have answered as Gardner and Sununu had, that they would only give the commission information that was public under state law.

Gardner said the first meeting of the commission will be July 19, five days after all the states are supposed to respond to the request.

The commission will have meetings on the road and there could be one in New Hampshire, Gardner added.

"Most of them will take place in D.C. I would urge people to keep an open mind on the group's work," Gardner said.

"One thing is pretty clear. The commission should get cooperation from the rest of the federal government. That's because the executive order for this commission makes it crystal clear when it asks questions, it has to be given answers."

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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