Voters remain concerned as data request put on hold

July 12, 2017


Local elections officials are trying to talk voters out of unregistering, as privacy concerns continue to mount in response to a special commission created by President Donald Trump.

Fears about data breaches and identity theft — or flat-out aversion to what many perceive as a Big Brother-ish information gathering activity — continued even as a representative of the commission on Monday told state officials not to provide the voter data previously requested.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner was among the state officials who received the missive from Andrew Kossack, the designated federal officer for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.

Kossack advised Detzner and others to ignore the committee’s request for voter data — including dates of birth, party affiliation, and the last four digits of Social Security numbers — because of a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC. The lawsuit, among other things, asked a judge for a temporary restraining order.

“Until the judge rules on the TRO, we request that you hold on submitting any data. We will follow up with you with further instructions once the judge issues her ruling,” Kossack, said in the email to state officials Monday.

The EPIC lawsuit is one of several, including cases filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, asking courts to block states from providing the requested information or accusing the White House commission of operating in violation of federal government-in-the-sunshine laws.

Trump created the commission to investigate possible election fraud in last year’s election. The president has maintained that up to 5 million fraudulent votes were cast, but elections officials say fraud is rare and there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2016 contest.

Detzner spokeswoman Sarah Revell said Tuesday that the Florida secretary of state has not provided any information to the commission and had no plans to offer the data, in light of Monday’s email.

“The commission that made the public-records request asked the department not to submit the requested information. As with any public-records request, if the requester indicates they no longer wish to receive the information, we do not process their request,” Revell said in an email Tuesday when asked about Kossack’s message.

Detzner had already pledged to release to the commission only voter information that was publicly available.

But concerns about privacy have dogged the commission since its inception, and voters may not be assuaged by a court-induced hiatus in the request for data.

“I often feel it’s part of my job to be a cheerleader for participating in our democracy, by registering to vote and voting. Lately, my job has been to sell voters on not leaving the voting rolls,” Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Tuesday.

In the aftermath of news about the commission, Corley said his office has fielded about 50 phone calls from voters.

“Voters are, number one, upset and angry that their information was going to be sent to this commission. And secondly, their eyes are being opened to exactly how much of their personal information is already publicly available,” Corley, a Republican, said.

Voters are telling elections officials they feel forced to choose between protecting their privacy and exercising their right to vote.

“Think about it. Someone is literally willing to cancel, to give up their right and privilege to vote is beyond sad. It’s pathetic,” Corley said.

Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards agreed that the commission has highlighted what, for some voters, has been a growing concern.

“It’s been a big concern of mine because, on a regular basis, I deal with constituent voters who are very upset when their information is public,” said Edwards, who has spent 17 years as the county’s chief elections official.

While many voters were aware of the situation “long before the presidential commission,” Edwards said the recent focus on Trump’s efforts to gather voter data has made people even more upset.

Voters aren’t the only ones who are riled, however.

County elections officials like Corley are also ticked off.

Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel delivered what he called a “mini rant” on Twitter last week.

Ertel, a Republican who’s held the post since his appointment by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005, tweeted Friday that he had spent “the past several days” trying to convince voters to remain registered.

“In my 12 years in office, I’ve never had to have this many of these conversations,” Ertel tweeted. “Please don’t let an action you disagree with have the effect of silencing your most powerful tool to change or affirm it: your vote.”

When asked how he responds to voters who want to quit, Corley echoed Ertel’s sentiments.

“I tell them, you may seem angry now, but more of a protest would be to stay registered, stay engaged and come out to the polls in 2018 and have your voice heard. That would be more productive,” Corley said.

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  • CJ Lewis July 12, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Each month, I review and make a copy of the two-page Active Voters by District document posted to the Escambia County Supervisor of Elections website that contains some very interesting statistical data. Comparing the May document with the June document, I see that the total number of registered city voters has dropped from 38,696 to 38,490. Countywide, the change is from 165,577 to 164,824. Supervisor of Elections David Stafford would know what part of the drops result from his office updating (purging) the roll, people moving away who unregistered and those who unregistered because they did not want to vote or for some other reason.

    Of note, and as I have written about for years and tried in vain to get the city’s African-American community and groups like the NAACP, ACLU, Movement for Change and the League of Women Voters to care about (they do not), the Pensacola City Council’s 2011 gerrymandering of the city’s election districts has had its desired effect. Going back to sometime in 2016, when I repeatedly alerted District 5 Councilman Gerald Wingate and District 7 Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn, who did not care, neither district now has a majority of African-American voters.

    While the primary objective of the City Council’s 2011 gerrymandering was to protect five White or Asian incumbents, there was a racist aspect to the process as best described by Councilman Larry Johnson who expressed concern about – “the racial mix” – and telling the Districting Commission – “the majority of my constituents are Caucasian or white.” When the Districting Commission under so much public and private pressure from City Council members rejected Stafford’s non-gerrymandered districting plan, to include the use of illegal “Out-of-the-Sunshine” meetings as described to me in graphic detail, they made sure to reduce the percentage of African-Americans in Johnson’s district by 22%. I have spoken in the past with so-called leaders of the city’s mostly passive African-American community offering to provide them with information about the gerrymandering to include statements made by officials admitting to the gerrymandering but they all seem afraid of city hall. As such, the Federal Voting Rights Act is dead inside city limits.

    From what I have seen as a candidate and also just comparing data for other purposes, I think there is some obvious voter and/or homestead exemption fraud in Escambia County with some cross-over to Santa Rosa County. Of the doors I knocked on during my 2016 District 1 City Council campaign, I would estimate that at least 5% of registered voters did not live where they said they did. People living at the house or neighbors said that some or all of the people had moved away a long time ago. In once case, none of the four people registered to live at an address lived there because the home had been vacant since the 2016 tornado that struck the neighborhood. One of the voters who owned the property may have been living in Santa Rosa County where she likely had a homestead property listed under her maiden name.

    I ran into some people who said they would have liked to vote for me but could not because they said they voted using an address elsewhere in Escambia County to include outside city limits. In one case, one person insisted that an address near Marcus Pointe where they were registered to vote was “in the city” and that the county’s District 1 election district was the same as the city’s District 1. I had two guardians bluntly tell me that their very elderly relatives were mentally incompetent to vote but I never checked to see if they did so mailing in their absentee ballots. I had people living inside city limits tell me that they did not realize they lived “in the city” and I had to explain the garbage can test – Black (in the city); Green (not in the city). I also ran into other people elsewhere who claimed to be city residents because their mail was delivered to a “Pensacola” mailing address. When I ran for Mayor in 2008, I even found out that my step-daughter’s boyfriend who lived with her in Alabama had registered to vote using my address. That ended that day. In 2008, there more than a few people registered to vote in city elections who lived outside of city limits to include Gulf Breeze.

    We all know about the scheme used by State Representative Mike Hill who claimed to have two permanent residences at once, one in Marcus Pointe so he could profit from a homestead exemption, he presumably got every year because the media has never reported otherwise, and at the same time he claimed to live at the Portofino Island Resort where he registered to vote so he could run in a different election districting knowing he could never defeat his own State Representative Clay Ingram. The Florida Legislature should clarify that a person cannot have two permanent residences at once, in addition to providing that you have to live in the election district you seek to represent when you “qualify” as a candidate.

    The saddest thing I learned as a candidate was that so many people did not register to vote or did register to vote but did not vote because they told me their vote did not count, whatever that means. More recently, just this month, I had to find contact info for two people related to neighborhood issues. I found the information and passed it along to the people who needed it but not before finding out that the two people in question who once were city voters, and who both still do live in the city, are no longer registered to vote. That finding was surprising and disappointing.