Don't Get Foolish About Voter Rolls

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY JUL 8, 2017

As the Trump administration set upon an investigation of supposed “voter fraud,” eyes turned this week toward Tallahassee to see whether state leadership would comply with a request for voter information. The answer came Thursday when Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner responded by providing all public voter rolls but explicitly withholding social security numbers and driver’s license information that had also been sought.

As headlines ran about Trump ally Gov. Rick Scott’s administration partially going along with the request, reaction broke along traditional partisan lines. But Democrats need to step back before reprimanding the state for fully complying with a public information request. All Detzner actually did, according to response to the request, was provide information anybody to get with a simple call to their county Supervisor of Elections. Indeed, SRQ’s popular Where The Votes Are presentations, held after every major election, relies heavily upon this data. As parties threaten lawsuits, I grow concerned people’s desire to fight a particular national agenda will lead them to disrupt their own public access rights in a state where transparency remains under a constant state of attack.

Florida Democrats responded to Detzner’s turnover of records with a huffy statement laced in condemnation. “We remind you that complying with this request may put voters at risk of identity theft, encroach federal rights to privacy, and violate the Federal Voting Rights Act in addition to the Florida Constitution,” reads a letter signed by Florida Democratic Party chair Stephen Bittel and four Democratic leaders from the Florida Legislature.

That’s poppycock. While I agree with assertions that claims of widespread voter fraud remain ungrounded and burdened by questionable motives, that Democratic statement brims with insincerity.

Let’s be clear with what Detzner actually turned over. Voter histories in Florida contain the name and voting ID number for every voter, along with their street address and phone number. Identity thieves would move faster swiping phone books than submitting Freedom of Information Act requests for this data.

Histories also include each voters’ assigned precinct, party registration, the date they first registered to vote and the last time they changed their registration. For most voters, the rolls also include race, gender and date of birth. If you ask for it, you can learn whether and how each voter cast ballots in any number of prior elections.

I use this data for political analysis, to study the demographics of our voting population at the state and local level. But if my knowing freaks you out, guess what? Trump’s people, at his presidential campaign and with the Republican National Committee, also have it too.

Campaigns and political parties—including the Florida Democratic Party—use this data to identify the most diligent voters and to drive their own people to polls every election.

And yes, investigators can also use the data to quickly identify funny business with people trying to vote multiple times or in multiple jurisdictions. Supervisors’ offices already look for this, and the Division of Elections checks their work and compares it to other offices around the state.

Without this information being available, such high-profile events as the 2000 recount would have been much harder to scrutinize. Similarly, when the then-Gov. Jeb Bush administration tried (twice!) to conduct questionable voter purges, ostensibly aimed at erasing felons from the polls but somehow targeting many legal voters in Democratic-leaning demographics while ignoring many illegal ones in Republican-leaning demographics, only public information requests from media and the ACLU exposed the problems and stopped most supervisors from going through with the purge.

So don’t shut down access to information just because President Trump wants it. We need to value our own access to this data, not turn it into a state secret kept even from our own elected leaders. Otherwise, fraud could become that widespread problem that it isn’t today.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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