Commentary: Texas risks harm if it hands over our voter data

While our state political leaders take pride in bucking Washington, there is one area where they’re being cooperative to our detriment: They are willing to hand a federal commission a treasure trove of voter data going back a decade.

Election officials were thankfully forced to pump the brakes recently after we sought help from the courts. But the fight isn’t over. The order blocking some of the data transfer is temporary. All Texans need to speak out to protect not only our privacy but to prevent bad actors like Russian President Vladimir Putin from gaining access to this sensitive information.

Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos quickly announced he’ll hand over voter data in response to a request from President Donald Trump’s Election Integrity Commission. This summer, the commission sent a letter to all 50 states asking for voter information including names, mailing addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, party affiliation and voting records going as far back as 2006.

It was met by a chorus of “Are you kidding me?” from election officials across the country.

Our Texas secretary of state had a different response. He is willing to hand over the data (except for Social Security numbers) without checking into how the commission will protect our information. In fact, they know the data will be made public because the commission said it will do so. It’s even required by federal law to release it.

Because the desire for privacy is cherished by Americans of all political stripes, it’s time for Republicans, Democrats and independents to stand up and contact the secretary of state and let him know your displeasure and seek support for our efforts from state officials, from the governor on down. None of us want our personal information exploited by cybercriminals, foreign governments or corporations looking to make a buck.

It might not seem like that big of a deal for Texas to share voters’ information, especially when people do everything online from paying bills to filing taxes. But one key security feature of U.S. elections is that they’re decentralized. There are more than 8,000 election jurisdictions across the country that independently help people exercise their most fundamental right.

If Pablos complies with the federal government’s request, as he’s indicated he will unless stopped, he’s helping create a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to do us harm. A national voter database will put at risk the very thing the “Election Integrity” Commission claims to be interested in protecting. It would potentially be an open invitation to foreign espionage, risking personal information of military members and federal employees. Such a setup could also give bad actors the opportunity to access data that they’d need to wreak havoc on credit scores of everyday Americans.

We’re not the only ones who are concerned.

National security officials warned about the dangers of the commission’s plan. Michael Chertoff, former Department of Homeland Security secretary for President George W. Bush, said, “We know that a database of personal information from all voting Americans would be attractive not only to adversaries seeking to affect voting but to criminals who could use the identifying information as a wedge into identity theft.”

Some voters even took the extreme step of unregistering themselves. The director of elections for Denver, Colo., said after the commission’s request her office was flooded by people looking to unregister, along with voters calling and emailing to share concerns. One was worried data would be “misused for illegitimate purposes.”

The judge asked a pointed question in the courtroom as our team successfully fought for a temporary restraining order to prevent the data from being handed over. If Vladimir Putin filled out a form requesting the Texas voter database, would the secretary of state send it to Moscow? The answer from Texas officials was, shockingly, yes. If you think that’s as absurd of a response as we do, call Pablos’ office and the governor and let them know.

Bledsoe is the president of the NAACP Texas State Conference. Wiant is president of the League of Women Voters of Texas.

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