OKLAHOMA CITY — Hundreds of concerned or fearful Oklahomans are contacting state election officials to find more out about a federal committee’s request for voter information.
Last month, members of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Election Integrity sent Oklahoma’s Election Board a letter seeking large amounts of potentially sensitive voter information. The request comes as Republican President Donald Trump seeks to prove his contention that he lost the 2016 presidential election’s popular vote due to millions of fraudulent votes being cast.
Basic parts of Oklahoma’s voter registration records — like names, addresses, dates of birth, political affiliations, a list of cast ballots and whether that was done in person — have long been available to the public under the state’s open records laws in an effort to ensure fair and transparent elections.
Some Oklahomans, though, are concerned that Trump’s committee is trying to force the state to hand out information that’s not public — like Social Security or driver’s license numbers or to reveal which candidates a person voted for, said Bryan Dean, a spokesman with the state’s Election Board.
Balloting, by the way, is done in secret, and the state doesn’t know specifically who voted for whom — only the final tally of votes cast.
The state Election Board has notified Trump’s committee that it is only entitled to information that’s publicly available — and only if they fill out the appropriate form requesting the data, Dean said.
The committee hasn’t done that yet, so no information has been released, he said.
Registered voters understand that some of their information is public, though most don’t expect it to be collected by the federal government, said Shannon Grimes, chair of the Cherokee County Libertarian Party, in an email.
Grimes said it is “refreshing” to see the caution most states are showing in answering the federal request and how many are refusing to release information that’s not public.
“Even if one thinks there is credence to the voter fraud investigation, there are still legitimate privacy concerns,” he said. “This process, to the degree it succeeds, will consolidate disparate information from across the nation into concentrated forms. This, of course, could raise the stakes for the mishandling of the voter information, potentially making it a nice one-stop shop for interests that might want the data for good or ill.”
In some parts of the country, officials are reporting Trump’s effort is having a chilling effect on registration as suspicious voters try to remove themselves from voter rolls in an effort to protect their personal information from the committee’s probe.
While many Oklahomans have questioned the request, there hasn’t been a spike in people unregistering, Dean said.
“There were just some people who wanted us not to comply with it because they don’t trust the motivations of the commission,” Dean said.
Jon DeMoss, 67, of Stillwater, said he’s not particularly concerned about Trump’s commission, but he doesn’t like government intrusion in his life.
“I have thought about taking my name off voter registration as a show of protest,” DeMoss said. “I would only then register to vote in an election I care about.”
He said that he doesn’t currently plan on doing that, though.
The commission does have supporters, however.
Greg Ingle, 26, of Lahoma, said he’s concerned that the commission’s request has been “blown out of proportion” and critics are relying on “scare tactics” to encourage states not to comply.
He believes there’s always been voter fraud and it has only helped one party — the Democrats.
“Voter fraud is a very tricky issue,” Ingle said. “You don’t want to deny an American citizen the right to vote. You’ve got to have integrity in the electoral system, and that starts here just as well as everywhere else.”
Out of about 1.4 million Oklahoma votes cast in November’s general election, about 17 cases of potential fraud were reported, Dean said. Those mostly involved someone voting absentee and then showing up on Election Day and voting again, he said.
Those cases are screened by district attorneys but rarely prosecuted because they often amount to an older voter simply forgetting they’d already cast a ballot, Dean said.
“We don’t see any widespread cases of voter fraud,” Dean said, adding that allowing public access to basic voter data is a large reason why.
Brady Henderson, legal director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization is watching to make sure the state complies exactly with law.
“We are very much supportive of (Oklahoma’s) decision to restrict what is given,” Henderson said. “That resistance is very important here because it helps protect the rights of Oklahomans to keep private the parts of their voting records that are private.”
The basic public data should be released “no matter how silly the purpose or how ill conceived,” he said.
Still, he said it’s hard to know at this point whether Trump’s committee will try to sue for access to protected information.
Such a move could have a chilling effect and potentially force people to withdraw from voter rolls. It would also force his group to take action to stop the release of protected data, he said.
“Are there going to be things in the administration to try to keep people from the polls later?” he asked. “There’s going to be a point to it eventually. It’s not just the privacy concerns, but where is this going?”
David Bitton, Kim Poindexter
and Brigette Waltermire
contributed to this report.