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State discovers private data on voter checklists; release to Trump election commission delayed

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau

August 29. 2017 8:34PM


CONCORD – State officials have discovered that a number of voter checklists contain private information handwritten by local election officials that is not subject to disclosure, thus complicating the process of submitting the voter data to President Trump’s commission on election integrity.

Secretary of State William Gardner and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald announced on Tuesday that Gardner has not released and will not release the information requested by the commission until all the handwritten, non-public information is redacted.

All access to the voter checklists, which are ordinarily public documents, has been temporarily suspended until the problem is resolved.

“Secretary Gardner and his staff have become aware that some of the marked checklists submitted by municipalities to the State Archives contained handwritten, non-public information regarding individual voters,” according to the statement.

The state also uncovered seven instances in which voters who were entitled to vote non-publicly by absentee ballot because of domestic violence protective orders were added to the public checklist by name, according to Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards.

The Attorney General’s Office is contacting the individuals involved.

After conducting a review of all the checklists, the Secretary of State determined that approximately 42 town or city election officials included handwritten, non-public information on the official checklists used on Election Day. This information includes, among other things, dates of birth, driver’s license numbers and telephone numbers.

The joint statement by Gardner and MacDonald  attributes the problem to a handful of local election officials.

“The inclusion of this information appears to be the result of informal and well-intentioned practices adopted by a minority of municipalities,” they stated. “However, these local practices create the risk of exposure of non-public information.”

In an email to election officials throughout the state on Tuesday, Gardner writes, "This non-public information should never be written on the public checklist used on Election Day, as that checklist remains a public document."

The review of the checklists from 309 polling places for the 2016 November General Election found that 42 municipalities had a combined total of 51 polling place checklists that contained handwritten information that was either clearly confidential information or information which is not required for the Election Day checklist.

"At this time, each municipality should do a full review of all of the marked checklists used at past elections, which are publicly available at the clerk’s office, to confirm that only public information is available for review," Gardner wrote. 

The information of most concern involves individuals whose addresses are protected by court order.

“We are deeply troubled to learn that the private information of victims of crime has been jeopardized,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of Public Affairs for the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking have the right to vote without their addresses and names being published to help keep their whereabouts safe from their abusers, she said.

“This protection is vital to the safety of victims and their children, both those living inside and outside of emergency domestic violence shelters.”

In addition to the full audit of checklists now under way, the organization also called for a town-by-town manual review of all  checklists to ensure that victim privacy has been protected.

Preparing for submission

Gardner said the problem surfaced as he and his staff prepared an electronic copy of the checklists maintained at the State Archives for submission to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, as well as in response to other requests his office has received under the Right-to-Know Law.

“Secretary Gardner has not released any public records and will not release the requested copies of the marked checklists until an ongoing process of redacting handwritten non-public information is completed,” according to MacDonald. The Secretary of State and Attorney General will announce in advance when such a release is to occur.

“In addition, there will be no public access to the marked voter checklists maintained at the State Archives pending a further announcement; and the Secretary of State’s Office will continue to provide guidance to local election officials to ensure that non-public information is not included on publicly available checklists,” he added.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, alluded to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in an attempt to block the release of the voter data, which was recently withdrawn.

“We are troubled that this confidential voter information has been publicly available at the State Archives maintained by the Secretary of State’s Office until this issue was discovered,” he said. 

Democrats seized the opportunity to again state their opposition to the release of any information to the Trump commission.

“This episode leaves more questions unanswered about the safety of Granite Staters’ voter information and reinforces the belief that New Hampshire should join the many states that have chosen not to share personal voter information with the Trump commission,” said House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook.

Gardner said the voter checklists containing only name, address, party affiliation and voting history (voted, did not vote) are public documents under the state’s Right to Know law, and cannot legally be withheld.

“The Right to Know Law is not only for people you like,” he said. “Our initial review of every page of every checklist has been done, and we’re pretty well through. Then we are going to have the AG’s office take a look at them before they are turned over.”

Gardner said he will not release any checklists to the presidential commission until he gets the green light from the Attorney General’s office.

“We’ll be taking a full review of all of them,” Edwards said.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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