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Arizona won't turn over voter rolls to Trump; Reagan invokes 'best interests of state'

Freedom of information experts question basis for withholding data

Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan has shifted course, telling the Trump administration that she won't provide information on the state's voters.

Friday, she had indicated that she would provide the same set of data that would be released under a normal public records request. Monday, she announced that she would not provide any data at all to the feds.

Reagan cited a narrow exemption to state public records laws, allowing officials to withhold information "in the best interest of the state."

"I share the concerns of many Arizonans that the commission’s request could implicate serious privacy concerns," she said.

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said Monday afternoon that she had questions about how the feds would handle the data, expressing concerns about it being possibly made available online in a manner that wouldn't comport with state law.

"I stand with [Reagan] on refusing to issue our voter registration data," said Rodriguez, a Democrat.

Dan Barr, a noted First Amendment lawyer in Arizona, said the secretary of state's announcement "looks to be an example of bullshit answering bullshit."

Under state law, an official refusing to provide records in the best interests of the state "has the burden of overcoming the presumption in favor of disclosure."

According to the state Supreme Court, that standard permits a public body to designate a record as confidential only when the "release of information would have an important and harmful effect on the duties of the officials or agency in question."

Commentary: Here's why it's vital to hand your voter info over to Trump

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Read: Reagan's letter refusing Kobach's request

"Officials must balance the possible adverse impact on the operation of the public body if the information in question is disclosed against the public's right to be informed about the operations of its government," the Arizona Ombudsman's Office explained.

Although Reagan laid out a series of concerns about how the federal commission might handle the data if it were provided, she did not detail in her refusal how providing the information might meet the legal standard of having "an important and harmful impact on the duties" of her office.

"The law doesn't allow for officials to pick and choose who gets information by conjuring up strange scenarios of what might happen," said David Cuillier, the head of the University of Arizona journalism school and a national expert on access to public records.

"Even if they make a good case that handing this info out is a bad idea, then they can't give it to anybody because it would be harmful," Cuillier said.

Under state law, the voter database is available to the public.

Earlier, Reagan had said that "Arizona will not provide the personal identifying information of Arizona's voters to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. We will only make available the same redacted information that is available to the general public through a public records request." Meaning, Social Security numbers, family maiden names, and full birth dates would not be included in the data, as those are not available to the public in this state.

The request for the data was sent by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, vice chairman of the commission appointed by President Donald Trump.

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Kobach has repeatedly claimed that as many as 5 million votes were cast illegally in the 2016 presidential election, claims that have been echoed by Trump.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won 2.8 million more votes than Trump in that race, but still lost the presidency because Trump won the Electoral College vote by a solid 304-227.

Kobach’s letter asked secretaries of state for input on how they would improve election integrity as well as any evidence of voter fraud in their states.

Reagan, like most other secretaries of state, said after the president’s allegations of voter fraud that she was confident there was nothing nefarious in the 2016 results.

Although officials in other states received the request last week, Reagan received her letter — identical to the others — from Kobach on Monday.

Here's what Kobach asked for from each state; the caveat "publicly available" is included twice in the same sentence delineating the requested information:

I am requesting that you provide to the Commission the publicly- available voter roll data for [XXXX state], including, if publicly available under the laws of your state, the full first and last names of all registrants, middle names or initials if available, addresses, dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information.

Reagan responded with a blanket denial late Monday afternoon.

"Since there is nothing in Executive Order 13799 (nor federal law) that gives the Commission authority to unilaterally acquire and disseminate such sensitive information, the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office is not in a position to fulfill your request," she told Kobach.

"Under normal circumstances, limited voter registration records could be provided to a member of the public upon payment of the requisite fee under Arizona law along with a statement of non-commercial use," the Republican election official said. "But this appears to be no normal request. Centralizing sensitive voter registration information from every U.S. state is a potential target for nefarious actors who may be intent on further undermining our electoral process."

"Without any explanation how Arizona’s voter information would be safeguarded or what security protocols the commission has put in place, I cannot in good conscience release Arizonans’ sensitive voter data for this hastily organized experiment," she said.

"I have directed my staff to withhold any provision of voter registration records based on the best interests of the State of Arizona," she wrote.

"Reagan's apparent change of mind may be an indication of where her internal political weather vane may be pointing at the moment," attorney Barr said.

Project Vote, a national voting-rights group, sued the state, and Pima and Maricopa counties, after a request for info about the 2012 election led to charges of $50,000 just from Maricopa alone. The state recently settled the case, agreeing that the entire database should cost only about $500.

That group said public access to voter rolls protects the integrity of our elections:

The public availability of, and access to, voter registration records is key to ensuring that citizens and voter registration organizations can guard against capricious, negligent, or discriminatory practices on the part of state election officials. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires that election officials make such records available for public inspection without imposing improper and discriminatory fees.

Just last week, Reagan said that the settlement lowering costs would "improve the accuracy and accessibility of voter information ... it will be easier for all parties to ensure voters are not inadvertently kept off or canceled for inappropriate reasons."

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The state Legislature agreed about the accessibility of the rolls, voting this year to dramatically reduce the charges for it.

Most experts agree with the secretaries of state, saying there has been no evidence of voter fraud on the scale suggested by Trump. His May 11 executive order creating the commission makes no mention of fraud in the last election, but directs the commission to find ways to boost the “people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in federal elections.”

In his letter to the secretaries, Kobach said the commission is setting out to identify laws and policies that either enhance or undermine confidence in federal elections processes.

But some civil rights groups remain skeptical of the commission and believe it will push for voter suppression in the future. They are also wary of Kobach, who was called the “King of Voter Suppression” by the American Civil Liberties Union for his aggressive pursuit of voter fraud that he claims exists.

Federal courts have ruled that Kobach’s claim of voter fraud in Kansas was pure speculation and said his efforts amount to “mass denial” of voters. The ACLU charges that Kobach’s strict voter registration policies are little more than attempts at voter suppression.

Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said Kobach has a “lengthy record of illegally disenfranchising eligible voters in Kansas.”

While she plans to submit the requested information for the sake of transparency, Merrill said she found it “very difficult” to have confidence in the commission, noting that courts have repudiated Kobach’s “methods on multiple occasions.”

Cronkite News reporter J.T. Lain contributed to this report.

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Jul 5, 2017, 4:08 pm
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Too much to hide, eh?  Got it…

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Evan Wyloge/Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting

Michele Reagan at her 2015 inauguration.

What's in your public voter file

Here's the information that is publicly available about each registered voter in Arizona:

  • Name in full and appropriate title
  • Party preference
  • Date of registration
  • Residence address
  • Mailing address, if different from residence address
  • Zip code
  • Telephone number if given
  • Birth year
  • Occupation if given
  • Voting history for all elections in at least the prior four years
  • Ballot requests and ballot returns for early voters

What might be in your file, but isn't available to the public:

  • Month and day of birth date
  • Social Security number or any portion thereof
  • Drivers license number or nonoperating identification license number
  • Indian census number
  • Father's name or mother's maiden name
  • State or country of birth
  • Records containing a voter's signature
  • Email address (beginning Sept. 30, 2017)

Source: ARS 16-168