Trump's Commission Sought Texas Data Flagging Hispanic Voters

by | January 23, 2018

By James Barragán

President Donald Trump's now disbanded voter fraud commission sought voter records from Texas state officials that flagged Hispanic voters, The Washington Post reported Monday.

The commission's request seeking categories such as full names, addresses, dates of birth, political party affiliation, last four digits of Social Security numbers and voter history since 2006 had rattled voting rights groups in Texas, who feared the commission would use its stated mission of investigating voter fraud to restrict the voting rights of minorities.

The information was never released to the commission. A lawsuit by minority and voting rights groups stopped the state from releasing nearly 50 million voting records that spanned from 2006 to 2016. The lawsuit is pending a resolution after the disbanding of the commission.

"The request form the commission was inappropriate to begin with and it was inappropriate for Texas to have contemplated giving the data given their state privacy laws and the inability of the commission to protect voters' privacy," said Myrna Perez, a lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University who represents the plaintiffs in the case. "It's one of the many reasons why Texas voters would have been subject to unreasonable and unlawful privacy risks."

Kris Kobach, the vice chairman of the controversial commission, told The Post the request to flag Hispanic voters was a "complete surprise" and that the commission never asked any state to flag surnames by ethnicity or race.

But documents filed with the Texas Secretary of State show that Ron Williams, the man in charge of collecting information from the states for the commission, checked boxes to flag Hispanic surnames on his request forms. Texas identifies voters with Hispanic surnames to mail them bilingual election notices in English and Spanish. It has done this since 1983 to conform to state and federal laws, spokesman Sam Taylor told The Post. The Secretary of State's office had said it would turn over to the commission only information that was already public.

Justin Levitt, an election law expert who oversaw voting rights for the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama, said the tracking of Hispanic surnames is a common practice that helps states with decisions on redistricting every 10 years.

"But for the Kobach commission to ask for it is super weird," said Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "I mean, super weird."

The request could indicate that the commission was searching for non-citizens on the voter rolls and attempting to check the citizenship status of Hispanic voters, Levitt said.

"That -- I cannot say more emphatically -- is the sort of discriminatory racial profiling that the constitution forbids in official government action," Levitt said. "It's deeply disturbing."

Kobach denied the commission's involvement in the decision to ask for the identification of Hispanic voters.

"Mr. Williams did not ask any member of the commission whether he should check that box or not, so it certainly wasn't a committee decision," Kobach told The Post.

Williams was fired from the commission in October after being charged with possession of child pornography.

Levitt said Kobach's past of false statements about the commission's work made it hard to believe that he did not know what the staff was requesting. After the commission was disbanded, for example, Kobach claimed he would work as an adviser to the Department of Homeland Security, which would continue the commission's work on voter fraud. The department, however, said Kobach would not be involved.

"Normally a statewide official and particularly one put in charge of a federal commission you'd take that at face value, but I honestly don't know whether to credit that or not," Levitt said.

Kobach not knowing would be equally problematic, Levitt said, because it would show a commission "tripping all over itself" with "no idea what they were doing ... and how they were going to do it."

Whatever the explanation, Texas Democratic Party officials said the commission's work was to disenfranchise Hispanic voters.

"It's very clear that the Trump administration developed this voter commission to figure out systemic ways to make it harder for people to vote and this revelation of the specific data they were looking for and the format in which they were looking for it makes it very clear that Trump Republicans were interested in taking Hispanics off voting rolls," said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

The commission, which was disbanded Jan. 3 after a slew of lawsuits from state officials and voting rights groups was tasked with investigating voter fraud. Trump had repeatedly claimed without evidence that millions of votes were illegally cast, which led him to lose the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections. Those claims have been repeatedly debunked.

(c)2018 The Dallas Morning News