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Why is the Press Now Against Openness?

Updated: Apr 13

The President established a bipartisan commission to examine voter fraud in May.  The commission simply asked each state for a list of the names, party affiliations, addresses, dates of birth, the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers, felony convictions, military status, and voting histories of all voters, if — and this is the critical point — state law allows the information to be made public.

Various press outlets and leftist groups have decried these efforts, claiming privacy and disputing the usefulness of investigating voter fraud.  And several Democratic politicians used colorful language to oppose the request.

Republican officials in Arkansas have expressed willingness to provide some, but not all, information. A spokesman for Secretary of State Mark Martin told The Arkansas Project today that his office wouldn’t be releasing the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers. Full Social Security numbers are exempt.  Partial numbers are less clear. Martin’s spokesman said they also won’t be releasing voters’ drivers’ licenses. But this is a rejection of a non-existent demand, as drivers’ licenses weren’t requested by Kris Kobach, Vice Chair of the President’s Commission On Election Integrity. You can read Kobach’s full letter requesting voter information here. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement Tuesday that he recommended Martin not release all information the commission requested because the request was “too broad and includes sensitive information of Arkansas voters.” A spokesman for Gov. Hutchinson said the “sensitive information” requested includes addresses, birthdays, and the last four digits of Social Security numbers. The irony, however, is that the press and some liberals have traditionally been champions of freedom of information acts and the transparency those laws support.  Not so much here, though.

Interestingly, these groups reject the notion of investigating whether voter fraud undermines our election process because they claim there’s not enough evidence to support the claim that it is a big problem; but they simultaneously insist on investigating the President for conspiring with the Russians to essentially, well, undermine our election process — notwithstanding the absence of any evidence whatsoever.

Perhaps obviously, a core notion in the freedom-of-information literature is that government actors don’t and shouldn’t decide whether to provide public data based on their political proclivities.  Investigative reporters necessarily internalize this posture every single time they use FOIA to try to uncover cronyism and corruption.  Yet many of the opponents of the commission’s actions are quite openly basing their objections on political preferences.  That’s hypocrisy.

The false claim for privacy is more tragic, because it likely reflects both wrongdoing and deception.  State FOIAs often build in some notions of privacy, and, indeed, the U.S. Constitution protects basic privacy rights.  However, privacy is defined relatively narrowly, and many of the requested data items clearly are not covered by actual privacy protections in the law.  Here, the blanket invocation of privacy is a, well, transparent pretext for either the political preferences described above or institutional indolence.

If folks don’t like President Trump, his policies, and his victory over their preferred candidate (who they expected to win), they’re free to continue their histrionics and to oppose his efforts.  But they must do legally.  States that refuse to comply with lawful records requests, however, are undermining both transparency laws and democratic outcomes.  That’s the real story, which remains largely ignored by the press.  That’s unfortunate.

Update: This post has been updated to make technical revisions.

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