July 10, 2017; New York Times
After last week’s pushback by many states to an overreaching request for information on voters sent by Trump’s Advisory Committee on Election Integrity, that committee was hit yesterday by four lawsuits from civil rights groups alleging the committee’s violation of federal privacy laws and charging that it has been illegally operating in secret.
“This is a shoddy commission, and the stakes are high,” said Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups filing suit. “‘They seek data on more than 200 million registered voters across the country. At the least, they should be complying with federal legal requirements’ governing the commission’s functions.”
A second suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union questions the motivations and makeup of the panel, stating that “the commission was established for the purpose of providing a veneer of legitimacy to President Trump’s false claim that he won the popular vote in the 2016 election—once millions of supposedly illegal votes are subtracted from the count.” This, says the suit, violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires from committees such as this that they convene a membership that is “fairly balanced” and shielded from outside influence.
Both suits charge that the commission has already violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which sets the standards for committee openness and accountability. Both groups allege that one telephone consultation that violated federal open-meeting requirements has already occurred and that the committee is holding back working papers and other documents that by law should be made available to the public. Both also object to the fact that the commission’s proclaimed first meeting, called for July 19th, will be viewable only on the Internet.
A third suit, by the advocacy group Public Citizen, argues that the commission is violating the federal Privacy Act by designating the Army to collect data on voters’ registrations and voting histories and other identifying data, including partial Social Security numbers and birthdates. The group said that law barred the federal government from collecting or using any “record describing how any individual exercises rights guaranteed by the First Amendment,” which covers voting and other forms of political expression.
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A fourth suit was filed last week by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), pleading that last week’s request letter violated the 2002 E-Government Act; under this act, the government must publicly assess the consequences of its actions before seeking personal information stored electronically.
Meanwhile, the deadline for the information request made to the states was Friday, but Mike Pence’s office advised secretaries of state to hold off on handing in the controversial data until a judge rules on the EPIC suit.
As if meant to feed the worst fears of privacy watchdogs, the voter data, according to the Washington Post, was originally to have been sent to a Pentagon website. The commission has now backed off from that idea and assures us all that the data will be securely held on a White House site. Still…
Trump’s May 11th executive order creating the commission stated that it would be funded and staffed through the General Services Administration, which like the Army is a federal agency subject to privacy requirements. But, last week in court, the commission said it would not being using the GSA but planned to use a Pentagon system as a bridge to what would be the ultimate repository for the data at the White House.
EPIC, of course, alleges that creation of “a secret database stored in the White House” of national voter registration information posed “staggering” privacy implications and would expose every registered voter to risks.—Ruth McCambridge