Written byTajha Chappellet-Lanier
On Thursday the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity published more than 100 pages of public comments in response to its work. Unfortunately, the White House panel failed to redact any of the personal information attached to those comments, including full names, email addresses, home addresses and phone numbers.
The commission, created by executive order in May, is set to “study the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections” and submit a report on possible voting system vulnerabilities and voter fraud to President Donald Trump. As part of its work, the panel has requested that states turn over voter data — a move that has generated some controversy and captured the public’s attention.
Many of the public comments submitted to the commission, as other publications have noted, openly poke fun at it. “Hi, I voted in all 50 states,” one email reads. “Just wanted you to know.” Lots include much more colorful language.
But other comments go beyond the jokes to express concern about data privacy if states turn over voter registration information to the commission. If information like voters’ names, birthdates, addresses and Social Security numbers are made public, one letter warns, “many people will get their identity stolen, which will harm the economy.”
It’s ironic, then, that some commenters now find this very information out in public at the hands of the White House. But is the commission’s unredacted publishing of personally identifying information illegal in any way? Or at least ethically dubious? Or just clumsy?
A note on the election integrity commission’s White House webpage does warn potential commenters that their statements may be made public. “Please note that the Commission may post such written comments publicly on our website, including names and contact information that are submitted,” it reads.
However, the Washington Post is reporting that this warning does not appear to have been made public before many of the comments were submitted. The Federal Register notice that includes the due diligence language was published July 5, but “approximately half of the emails published by the White House were dated prior to July 5,” the newspaper reports. The White House webpage where the comments were released, the Post also notes, wasn’t published until July 13.
Other federal entities have different approaches to collecting and publishing the identifying information that comes with public commentary. The Federal Trade Commission website, for example, provides this guideline: “Published comments include the commenter’s last name and state/country as well as the entire text of the comment. Please do not include any sensitive or confidential information.”
Even in the event that the election integrity commission’s commenters were sufficiently aware of what they were signing up for, Alex Howard, deputy director at the Sunlight Foundation, is concerned about the ethics.
“I’m not convinced about the public interest value [of releasing this kind of personal information],” he told FedScoop. As a transparency advocate he’s concerned about the impact this kind of incident has on public discourse. “This creates a disincentive for people to meaningfully participate,” he said. “We should expect better.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
FedScoop reached out to several people whose email addresses were published to understand whether they expected personal information to be made public.
“I submitted my letter with that information because that information is required when I write a letter to the editor or to my elected representatives in the state or federal government,” Julie Pease, whose email address and home address is now public, responded. “That information does not appear when a letter to the editor is printed and I have never seen it posted on any of my elected officials websites. Unfortunately, I assumed a competence that is missing from this White House and I am not happy that this information, as well as the contact information for several others, is posted.”
Another individual, who did not want to be named in this story, said the unredacted publishing was surprising. “Illegal? Likely not,” the person wrote in an email. “Improper, most assuredly.”
The commission holds its first official meeting Wednesday, July 19.