By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
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.