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CA Secretary of State Padilla responds to White House request for voter data

California State Senator Alex Padilla speaks with KPCC's Patt Morrison in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 4, 2012.
California State Senator Alex Padilla speaks with KPCC's Patt Morrison in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 4, 2012.

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President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission asked all 50 states for their voter data, including names, addresses and the last four Social Security numbers of registered voters.

Thursday, Secretary of State Alex Padilla denied the request, saying it would only bolster illegitimate claims of voter fraud.

Guest host Libby Denkmann sat down with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to discuss the latest.

Interview highlights:

President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission sent a letter yesterday to you and 49 other secretaries of state. What did the letter ask?

PADILLA: The letter starts off in an innocuous way: What suggestions do you have running elections in the United States of America? 

But here’s the troubling part, they also want a data transfer. They want data on every registered voter in California. And we are not just talking about names and phone numbers, by the way: names, dates of birth, the last four digits of your social security, complete vote history, party affiliation, on and on and on.

A lot of this information just isn’t public information for anybody. I have serious concerns, not just about this request, but about the commission fundamentally.

Here’s the big picture, we know the president is still upset that he lost the popular vote last November. Despite his claim of massive voter fraud to the tune of millions in the state of California, they have no evidence of that. Study after study and investigation after investigation shows that [voter fraud] is exceedingly rare. . . This is their first action to put out a voter information request for personal information on every voter of America, I think it’s an overreach and I don’t exactly trust the process. 

What was your official response to the letter? 

PADILLA: They gave us until July 14th to respond and provide data. I just don’t know how to do it with any sort of confidence. They are asking for personal information from voters across America, especially from California, the most populous state, with no transparency on their end.

The [Election Integrity Commission] has been formed, and the co-chair by the way, Kris Kobach from Kansas, is somebody with a long history of supporting discriminatory policies, anti-immigrant policies and voter suppression efforts across the country. . .

As far as a formal response, I’d like to suggest that if they are genuine about maintaining the integrity of elections in America, number one: please acknowledged that the Russians interfered with the election, and act on that. The president has yet to do so. Number two: follow the advice from the last commission that was formed. When President Obama was re-elected in 2012, there was a bi-partisan commission with true respected experts. They came together and offered advice on what can we do to improve elections. Chief among that advice? Invest in new voting equipment.

We need new systems that embrace new technologies to better secure our elections. Everything we use in California today is 15 to 20 years old. It’s the age of that equipment that’s probably the biggest threat. 

To be clear, you will not at this point participate with the request? Is there anything they can do to compel you to give this data to the federal government?

PADILLA: I could not in good conscience agree with the request thus far. This advisory commission is exactly that, it is advisory. The letter they sent us is a request, it is certainly not a Freedom of Information Act request by any means, and it’s not clear what grounds of authority [the commission has] to make this kind of request and to handle this kind of data--data we know it’s sensitive, and personal. 

Moving on to Russian Hacking. There were a pair of hearings on Capitol Hill last week. Some lawmakers discussed Russian cyber attacks on American soil by using an American voting system. Many Homeland Security and FBI officials testified before the Senate Intel Committee. One official confirmed that 21 states experience cyber probing of election infrastructure. Do we know for sure that California is among one of those states?

PADILLA: There’s zero evidence that elections here in California were compromised. We have done check after check to verify whether there was any irregular activity. Even though California isn't on the list, I can’t take it for granted.

The Russians may not have been successful this last go-around, but as former FBI Director Comey said in his testimony “they are going to keep coming. They are going to learn what they learned in 2016, and they are going to try [to hack] future elections.” We have to stay vigilant. We have to constantly be as prepared as possible to defend the integrity of our election. 

The head of the National Association of Secretaries of State Connie Lawson testified that there hasn’t been enough communication with the Department of Homeland Security and secretaries of state about potential cyber attacks. It seems that DHS, during the hearings, would not confirm who the 21 states were. Do you worry at all that there’s information about California that’s not being shared with you at the state-level and with other secretaries of states? 

PADILLA: That is certainly a concern. The whole premise behind the creation of the Election Infrastructure Cybersecurity Working Group within the Department of Homeland Security came last fall when initial chatter of hacking or election rigging came about. And it was followed up by DHS in January designating elections as a critical infrastructure. We spoke earlier about state running elections, not the federal government. There has been state concern about what this federal rule could potentially mean for election security.

There’s potentially value added from this partnership if we are just exchanging best technology practices. But sharing information, that’s what’s so vital when it comes to homeland security and cyber security. That’s the premise behind the working group. And unfortunately, we come to learn through leaked NSA memos that there was information available to them that was not shared on a timely basis with state election officials who are on the front line defending elections. We go back to the checks, reviews, and audits since the election and feel very confident about what happened in 2016. We can learn from that experience and better strengthen ourselves in 2018 and beyond. 

*This interview has been edited for clarity