Washington state Secretary of State Kim Wyman is doing what she and every other public official in the state ought to do when presented with a request for public records: She’s complying with state law and releasing the information allowed under the state’s Public Records Act.
Wyman and 49 other secretaries of state received a letter requesting voter information last week from the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a commission called by President Trump following his unsubstantiated claim that some 3 million people voted illegally in the November election, which accounts for his losing the popular vote to Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton by nearly 2.9 million votes while winning the election on Electoral College votes.
The form letter requested a data dump of registered voters’ names, dates of birth, addresses, partial Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, voting histories and party affiliation. The letter drew a mixed response with about 44 of the states declining all or part of the request.
Among those fully declining was California, whose secretary of state, Alex Padilla, said release of the information “would only serve to legitimize the false and already debunked claims of massive voter fraud,” The Washington Post reported Saturday.
Wyman said Friday that she would provide the information state law allowed: names, addresses and dates of births.
“I have no choice. It’s a public record,” she told The Spokesman-Review.
Nor does she have any other choice than to decline to release other requested information, including any portion of voters’ Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, none of which is considered part of the public record under state law.
Nor will Wyman be providing any voter’s party affiliation, but that’s because the state doesn’t register voters by party and doesn’t collect information on how a voter voted in past elections.
Still, Wyman, a Republican, came under criticism from state Democratic Party Chairwoman Tina Podlodowski, who said the records request was a “voter suppression” effort and calling on Wyman to reject it as Wyman’s responsibility to “protect free and fair elections.”
That is one of Wyman’s responsibilities, but Podlodowski, who lost her challenge in November to unseat Wyman, would ignore the office’s responsibility to uphold state law.
As one of the state’s most visible public officials, Wyman has an even greater responsibility to comply with state laws on transparency.
And she’s paid a price for not fully adhering to state law before. Wyman was ordered to pay more than $10,000 in January because her re-election campaign failed to timely file contribution and expenditure reports to the state Public Disclosure Commission, delays that Wyman’s campaign self-reported to the agency in May, 2016.
Wyman and other state officials have a responsibility to set an example for all public office holders and employees in charge of public documents at state, county and local governments, regardless of their concerns for how that information might be used.
Public officials, at any level, can’t make themselves the gatekeepers for records that belong to the people, using their own judgment on which requests to fulfill and which to deny.
We saw two such attempts earlier this year when the mayor of Langley attempted to bill a reporter for time spent by the city attorney in answering the reporter’s questions and in Tacoma when city officials redacted information, at the request of the FBI, about cellphone surveillance.
There’s a kind of transparency in the request by the so-called commission on “election integrity;” it’s clear that the trove of information being requested from all 50 states is a fishing expedition meant to allow the Trump administration to pressure states into efforts to clear voter registration rolls, particularly of voters who identify as Democrats. Why else would such a commission be interested in any voter’s party identification or voting history?
States need to do more work to update their rolls of registered voters to eliminate duplicate registrations. But evidence of a voter registered in more than one state or county is almost always a matter of oversight by a voter moving to a new address and not an attempt at voter fraud.
But efforts to update those rolls are best left to individual states, not partisan presidential commissions. Even so, as dubious as the request is, any information considered public by Washington state law must be released.