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The uses of big data

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Not always are federal requests spooky overreaches with eerie implications for actual Americans. But this new one sure was.

That is the request from the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, the task force established by President Donald Trump and headed by contentious Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

The commission’s formal purpose is to “study the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections,” which on its face seems peculiar, since these are state processes, not federal, and in general they have been in use for many years, operating successfully. Idaho, which with the rarest exceptions has had smoothly-run elections for generations, generally is a typical example. Where problems have arisen, they’ve been very small one-off situations.

The more exact purpose was in looking for “those vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.” Since the levels of voter fraud reported in this entire country over the last several generations have been microscopic, you have to wonder where this would be headed.

The task force has asked for a vast array of data, down to partial Social Security numbers and criminal records, about the voters in all 50 states. Officials from nearly all of the states have, to a partial or fuller degree, told the commission to jump in a lake.

Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney was more genteel than that, but his response was in line with what you might expect from any state official, much less an official in a state where the top elected honchos have made careers out of talking about federal overreach.

Some information asked for, he pointed out in a statement, is explicitly public record and often is distributed to political parties and others as a matter of course. There would be no basis for denying it to the commission (or to you or me), if it put in a public records request.

But his office’s statement goes on: “While additional information is requested in the letter (such as driver’s license and the last 4 of a voter’s social security number), that information is NOT considered public and Secretary Denney could not be compelled, outside of a specific court order detailing the need for and intended use of such data, to provide that information under Idaho Public Records statutes.”

The voter information being asked for includes dates of birth, part of the Social Security numbers, active or inactive status, felony convictions and voter registration elsewhere.

How exactly would all that (and more, if used in conjunction with the immense corporate and other databases now available) be used? What sort of massive national database of voters would be compiled – and for what purpose?

State Representative John Gannon raised some of the followup questions in an opinion piece last week: “What are they going to do with this data? How are they going to track those who move, and what right does the federal government have to even do that? Are federal investigators going to contact landlords, look at assessor records and interrogate voters regarding residences in order to determine ‘vulnerabilities’”?

If you’re among the many Idahoans who’ve thought about federal intrusiveness in the past, think about that.

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