State election officials gather amid uproar over voter data
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — State election officials from across the U.S. are gathering this weekend amid an uproar over a White House commission investigating allegations of voter fraud and heightened concern about Russian attempts to interfere with last fall's election.
That's drawn an unusual spotlight to the gathering of the National Association of Secretaries of State, which kicked-off Friday in Indianapolis and will host officials from 37 states.
Security of election systems is sure to be a major point of discussion and will be the subject of a series of closed-door meetings Saturday.
The Department of Homeland Security last fall said hackers believed to be Russian agents targeted voter registration systems in more than 20 states. A leaked National Security Agency document from May said Russian military intelligence had attempted to hack into voter registration software used in eight states.
There is no indication so far that voting or ballot counting was affected, but officials are concerned that the Russians may have gained knowledge that could help them disrupt future elections.
Election integrity will be another hot button.
The conference lands one week after the commission investigating President Donald Trump's allegations of election fraud requested voter information from all 50 states, drawing blowback from Republicans and Democrats alike. The request seeks dates of birth, partial Social Security numbers, addresses, voting histories, military service and other information about every voter in the country.
Trump has repeatedly stated without proof that he believes millions of fraudulent ballots were cast in the November election, when he carried the Electoral College but lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The commission was launched to investigate those claims and is being chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who sent the request. A spokeswoman said Kobach, a Republican, will not attend the weekend conference.
What remains unclear is what exactly the hodgepodge of data will be used for. Pence spokesman Marc Lotter said the commission will look for potential irregularities in voter registrations and advise states on how they can improve their practices.
"This is all publicly available data that's out there already," Lotter said, noting that the information is provided in most places to political parties and other groups.
But many secretaries of state, of both parties, say all or parts of the requested data are not public in their states. Others are skeptical of the commission's intent, raising concerns that the information could be used to justify stringent new voter security procedures that could make it more difficult for people to cast a ballot.
Some Democrats have said the commission is merely trying to provide cover for Trump's unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
"I hope we get answers to some of this, because I do think that this is an odd time to be forming a national database of some kind if we're so concerned about security," Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, said Friday.
The U.S. does not have a federalized voting system. Instead, the process is decentralized, with 9,000 voting jurisdictions and more than 185,000 individual precincts. Officials believe that actually makes it difficult for hackers to have any sizable effect on the vote.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have said they will refuse to provide the information sought by the commission. The other states are undecided or will provide just some of the data, according to a tally of every state by The Associated Press.
Election officials in many of the states that are refusing to provide the information objected to the commission's mission and say voter fraud is not a widespread problem. Others are citing privacy concerns.
South Carolina's election commission says state law forbids releasing the information to anyone who is not a voter in the state.
Some state officials, such as Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, say they don't understand the concerns. Ashcroft said he is bound by state law that limits how much information he can release; the data he can turn over includes names, addresses and birth dates.
"Do I think that this is a case where there are politicians grandstanding? Of course," Ashcroft said. "As a statewide official, I am not allowed to apply the law differently because I like you or dislike you."
Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed.