Elections Government

PA Voters’ Personal Info Was Not Shared With Election Research Group, State Officials Say

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt assured a state Senate committee that the multi-state voter information database securely protects the personal information of motorists and voters.

By Peter Hall | Pennsylvania Capital-Star

A voter walks into a Pennsylvania polling place.
Credit: Amanda Berg/Spotlight PA

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt told a state Senate panel on Wednesday that motorists’ and voters’ personal information is safe with the multi-state voter information clearinghouse that helps counties maintain their voter rolls.

Schmidt last month circulated a letter saying that Pennsylvania would no longer allow the information that it provides to the Electronic Registration Information Center —  known as ERIC — to be shared with third parties. But he added that when the data was shared with an election research firm in the past, no personally identifiable voter information was released.

“I didn’t see any real benefit from it for us to share information derived from ERIC data analysis with third parties,” Schmidt told members of the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee, adding that sharing information was legal and permissible when it was done in the past.

“There’s no indication that the information was misused in any way. So it was more a matter of sort of putting those concerns to rest, or at least, that’s what I’d hoped,” Schmidt said.

Pennsylvania joined ERIC in 2016. The nonprofit organization is owned, governed and managed by a coalition of state elections officials. It allows states to share voter registration and motor vehicle information securely and anonymously to help identify people who are registered in more than one county or state.

The process, which involves comparison of the records with U.S. Postal Service and Social Security Administration data, helps the states that participate efficiently maintain accurate and secure voter lists. 

Sen. Cris Dush (R-Jefferson) wants Pennsylvania to follow the lead of nine Republican-led states that have abandoned ERIC even though election experts, including Schmidt, say the system helps prevent fraud.

Part of Dush’s objection to the state’s participation in ERIC stems from its sharing of driver’s license data with the Center for Election Innovation and Research for a study on the efficacy of outreach efforts to eligible but unregistered voters. 

The agreement between states that belong to ERIC requires them to make an effort once a year to contact eligible but unregistered voters to encourage them to register. Pennsylvania does so by sending postcards, Schmidt said.

“I sincerely do not trust what goes on with ERIC or the Center for Election Innovation and Research,” Dush said during the hearing Wednesday. “And I think there’s good reason for it, given the fact that CEIR actually got access to our constituents’ information.”

Dush has said he believes the transfer of data to CEIR could enable partisan voter registration efforts, noting that CEIR has partisan ties. Its founder, David Becker, has broadly refuted former President Donald Trump’s claims of fraud in the 2020 election. 

PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll said ERIC receives only a portion of the information that the agency collects from driver’s license applicants. 

Deputy Secretary for Elections and Commissions Jonathan Marks explained that the data transmitted to ERIC is converted into cryptographic hash codes, meaning that the organization doesn’t get driver’s license or Social Security numbers but can still use the information to identify people who are registered to vote in more than one place.

“So the staff at ERIC would have no way of knowing what my actual driver’s license number is or what my actual Social Security number is, but they wouldn’t be able to compare it –because of the one-way hashing tool– to another state to come up with a reliable match,” he said.

The use of encrypted personal information is necessary to make accurate matches, Marks said.

Earlier this month, Dush held a hearing in the State Government Committee, where he is chairperson, where Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose testified about their states’ departures from ERIC.

Since the organization’s inception in 2012, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Missouri, West Virginia, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Texas have left the organization over concerns about privacy, transparency and partisanship. The District of Columbia and 24 states remain members.

Byrd and LaRose testified that they are working to develop alternative data-sharing agreements with other states, according to a news release from Dush’s office.

Schmidt said the states that have left ERIC are struggling to reconstruct the election integrity benefits it provides while shedding the responsibility of outreach to unregistered voters. He added that he hasn’t seen any indication that they have been able to fill the void, and that means there is less information available to other states. 

“So if someone now moves from Pennsylvania to Ohio, we don’t have a record indicating they’ve moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio unless they file a national change of voter application or something else like that. We don’t get that benefit,” Schmidt said. 

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Pennsylvania Capital-Star

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