Although the current histrionics playing out in the media would lead one to believe otherwise, the Pennsylvania Department of State routinely shares your personal information. In fact, for $20, anyone in the country can purchase an official report containing, among other things, your name, home address, and date of birth, plus the same for the other 8.7 million registered voters in the commonwealth. For example, campaigns, political parties, and interest groups buy this data so they can flood your mailbox with advertisements. But when lawmakers voted to subpoena the same information in September, the state slammed its doors, while Democrats and their media allies spun the tale that legislative efforts to review 2020 voting records are an invasion of privacy.
Commonwealth Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who wants to be governor, jumped on the chance to attack his opponents, and filed suit to block the subpoena in court.
So is the information lawmakers want to look at really “private?” Decades-old federal law says “no.” The federal National Voter Registration Act says states must make all voter-roll-maintenance records available for physical inspection. The roll containing your name and address is also public record under commonwealth law.
What about records showing whether someone voted? Those are public, too. Commonwealth law grants access to dedicated lists of those who cast a mail ballot.
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These laws have been in place for years and none of the presently outraged parties apparently noticed. The Philadelphia City Commissioners’ Office even publishes names, voter ID numbers, and birth years on the internet of those who did not submit verifiable proof of identification with their ballots. Why haven’t the apparently privacy-obsessed instigators of these lawsuits sued Philadelphia?
But aren’t legislators also asking for driver’s license and Social Security numbers? Yes, but the Department of State does not consider that information private when shared between commonwealth agencies. This type of information flow is often required to prevent John Doe’s government benefit from being given to the wrong John Doe.
You may recall in 2017 when the Pennsylvania Department of State revealed that a “glitch” at DMV offices had allowed foreign nationals to register to vote for decades. In response, the State Department shared voter data with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to determine the extent of the problem.
People often share the same name, address, or birthday. Relying solely on those data points can easily result in cases of mistaken identity. However, people do not share driver’s license or Social Security numbers. With the data in hand, accuracy and confidence improve under study. The State Department understands that. It’s why the department asks you to provide that information in the first place.
But aren’t legislators planning to share voter data with some outside parties? They might not have a choice if they want a credible analysis. Such an arrangement would hardly be unprecedented. In fact, the Department of State routinely shares your voter-registration data with a nongovernmental organization called the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) because it has tools and expertise in cleaning voter rolls that Harrisburg doesn’t keep in-house. ERIC helps states keep voter rolls clean. But the nonprofit needs your personal information to function properly.
The Department of State routinely shares your voter-registration data with a nongovernmental organization called the Electronic Registration Information Center…
If this is not really about privacy, what is the real story? Politics and ambitions for higher offices, like usual. If you want to build rapport with certain political bases, opposing simple election-integrity measures can help. But the legislative concerns are bigger than the 2020 election.
The State Department has a record of chafing against audits of its work, even when government auditors are merely doing their jobs. In 2019, election officials refused seven requests from auditors for documents that were necessary to confirm the accuracy of the State Department’s voter records. The Public Interest Legal Foundation has spent years studying registration and voting records in the commonwealth. We’ve identified errors and irregularities numbering in the tens of thousands, including the discovery that more than 20,000 deceased individuals apparently remained registered to vote on the eve of the 2020 election. In Allegheny County, the foundation found one individual registered seven times. There is plainly work to be done, and the legislative effort could help to crack the Department of State’s culture of concealment.
The outcry you hear is manufactured and selective. Do not be deceived.
If anything can be called unprecedented, it is the way the nation voted in 2020. Efforts to examine the integrity of our election systems are needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, politics may once again trump common sense in the commonwealth.
Linda A. Kerns is an attorney with the Law Offices of Linda A. Kerns, LLC in Philadelphia, PA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Noel H. Johnson is an attorney for the Public Interest Legal Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com. The Public Interest Legal Foundation filed amicus briefs in support of election transparency in the lawsuits challenging the legislative subpoena.