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Kobach’s defeat puts future of voter database in doubt

By ROXANA HEGEMANJanuary 19, 2019
FILE - In this Nov. 30 2018 file photo, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach answers questions from reporters in Topeka, Kan. The future of a contentious multi-state voter registration database is uncertain now that former Kansas Secretary of State Kobach no longer holds that office. A spokeswoman for Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab said Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, the office is reviewing Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program and consulting with other member states. (AP Photo/John Hanna File)
FILE - In this Nov. 30 2018 file photo, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach answers questions from reporters in Topeka, Kan. The future of a contentious multi-state voter registration database is uncertain now that former Kansas Secretary of State Kobach no longer holds that office. A spokeswoman for Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab said Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, the office is reviewing Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program and consulting with other member states. (AP Photo/John Hanna File)

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The future of a much-criticized database that checks if voters are illegally registered in multiple states is up in the air after its patron, Kris Kobach, lost the Kansas race for governor and is out of elected office.

A spokeswoman for Kobach’s successor as Kansas secretary of state said Friday the office is reviewing the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program and consulting with other member states about it. “No formal decision has been made either way” about whether to end the program, said Katie Koupal, the spokeswoman for Secretary of State Scott Schwab.

Crosscheck, which had been administered by Kobach’s office, compares voter registration lists among participating states to look for duplicates. The program is aimed at cleaning voter records and preventing voter fraud, but has drawn criticism for its high error rate and lax security.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas alleged in a lawsuit filed last year that “reckless maintenance” of the program has exposed sensitive voter information. Kobach has called that lawsuit “baseless,” citing the U.S. Supreme Court last year in an Ohio case dealing with maintenance of voter rolls.

On Friday, Kobach noted Crosscheck has grown from four states at its start in 2005 to 30 states.

“It grew quickly because it provides such valuable information,” he said. “Continuing the Crosscheck program is a no-brainer.”

Lauren Bonds, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas, said Friday it would be hard to reform the Crosscheck program in a way that would make it constitutionally sound.

“If there was a way to make sure the program was more accurate and secure, we wouldn’t necessarily be calling for its full abolishment,” Bonds said. “But I think it would be hard to make those adjustments without changing the program fundamentally.”

Kobach, a longtime champion of strict voter registration laws, was vice chairman of President Donald Trump’s now-disbanded commission on election fraud. Kansas voters elected Schwab, also a Republican, to replace him after Kobach ran for governor and lost to Democrat Laura Kelly.

Crosscheck compares registration lists and analyzes voters’ first and last names and date of birth to determine whether a person is registered in multiple states, but critics say most of the hits are false matches.

By comparison, the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC as it is better known, uses encrypted voter information along with Social Security Administration death records, driver license information and U.S. Postal Service change-of-address data.

Twenty-six states now use ERIC system, according to its website. ERIC, based in Washington, D.C., is a non-profit corporation governed by a board of directors made up of member states.

“A number of states use that for a fairly reasonable fee and that seems like a much better option than trying to rebuild Crosscheck from the ground up so it doesn’t have the problems it currently has,” Bonds said.

The ACLU lawsuit alleges Kobach used reckless methods such as unencrypted email to transmit sensitive personal voter information, such as partial Social Security numbers, to other states while investigating possible double registration. As administrator of the Crosscheck server, he regularly sent server passwords in plain text emails that were widely shared.

Crosscheck was started in 2005 and had only four participants when Kobach took office in 2011. By 2017, 30 states were participating in Crosscheck and more than 100 million voter records were added to the database, according to the ACLU lawsuit. Eight states — Florida, Alaska, Kentucky, Washington, Oregon, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts — have left the program due to security risks and data reliability concerns since Kobach began managing it.

In New Hampshire, lawmakers are now considering a bill to end the state’s participation in Crosscheck and instead join ERIC.

The legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Marjorie Porter (D-Hillsborough) said she was concerned at the high percentage of false matches produced by the Crosscheck system and reports that it doesn’t properly protect personal information.

After the 2016 election, Crosscheck flagged nearly 95,000 New Hampshire voters with first and last names and dates of birth that matched those in other states, but officials eliminated all but 142 after taking a closer look at middle names and other information. The secretary of state’s office eventually sent 61 cases to the attorney, and there have been a handful of charges brought so far.

“It certainly helps us say with confidence what we all believe is true, which is that there’s no wide scale voter fraud that is taking place in New Hampshire,” Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan told the House Election Law Committee this week. “But it does happen, and it happens in isolated incidents, and it’s a good thing we’re able to catch those.”

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This version of the story corrects the information attributed to Kobach about Crosscheck, reflecting that he said its growth occurred since 2005, not four years.

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Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire and John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, also contributed to this report.

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