Lawmakers Join ACLU to Challenge N.H. Secretary of State's Release of Voter Info

Jul 6, 2017

Two state lawmakers are joining the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to sue Secretary of State Bill Gardner over his plans to comply with the Trump administration’s request for voter information.

The lead plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit is Republican Rep. Neal Kurk, of Weare, who has crusaded against potential privacy breaches on a number of fronts during his 16 terms in the Legislature. The lawsuit also makes note of the fact that Kurk had a hand in authoring privacy amendments to the state’s voter checklist law. 

Kurk, in an interview Thursday evening, said he doesn't object to the idea of New Hampshire sharing its voter data with other states for the purposes of checking for cases of improper voting. But he does take issue with the idea that the information collected by the Trump commission could be collected in a central database and subject to public disclosure.

"Well, I think the Russians would really like 900,000 New Hampshire voters' names, addresses, party registration," Kurk said. "It makes their job much easier."

"Data miners would love this information. Governments would love this information," he added. "That's not what we're about in New Hampshire. We're a Libertarian state, and this information is personal to us, and private, and unless the legislature gives specific authorization to the Secretary of State to release this to someone else for some other purpose, the laws don't allow it to be done."

Setting aside whether or not the data would ultimately be made publicly available, Kurk said the law would still prevent the Secretary of State from releasing the information to the commission.

"The fact they're planning to make it public just pours salt in the wound, but there is no ability under current New Hampshire law for the federal government to get a copy of our voter database," Kurk said. "That was intentionally done by the Legislature. We don't want the federal government having databases consisting of personally identifiable information about New Hampshire residents."

Democratic State Senator Bette Lasky, of Nashua, is also a plaintiff. In an interview after the lawsuit was filed, Lasky said she was troubled by a lack of clarity over what the commission planned to do with the voter data it’s requesting. 

“I don’t know, and I don’t know that the Secretary knows or even the commission knows, where they’re going to be heading with this information," Lasky said in an interview.

The lawsuit argues the Secretary of State has no legal authority to share voter data with the Trump commission. Citing the commission’s request for states to turn over the requested voter information by July 14, the ACLU asks the court to schedule an “immediate hearing” to block any release before that time, until the court has a chance to more fully review the issue.

State law limits sales of New Hampshire’s statewide voter checklist to registered political parties or committees, and it also says those checklists can’t be used for commercial purposes.

“The Commission is not entitled to special, unwritten exemptions from the Secretary of State that circumvent New Hampshire law,” the lawsuit reads. “Rather, the Secretary of State must apply the law to the commission no differently than he would apply the law to a regular member of the public seeking this information.”

The Trump commission’s request for voter records indicates that the information collected could be made public, and the ACLU lawsuit argues that would also be problematic.

“This dissemination could cause New Hampshire voter information to be used by others for commercial purposes contrary to the legislature’s intent,” the lawsuit says.

In the days since Gardner signaled plans to share of the voter information requested by the Trump commission, his office has been on the receiving end of calls, emails and other complaints from people opposed to the decision.

Meanwhile, it took little time for the issue to turn into a political football for the state parties.

House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Democrat from Penacook, started circulating a petition earlier this week to convene a special session "to clarify New Hampshire law regarding the release of voter information." House Majority Leader Dick Hinch, in a statement, called the move "political grandstanding."

"If Democrats had a genuine concern about the availability of the data, they had decades to change the law," Hinch said. "By petitioning for a special session they demonstrate their political motives and their disregard for the usual and customary legislative process."

The New Hampshire Republican Party also accused state Democrats of hypocrisy in their objections to the release of voter data to the Trump commission, pointing out that the New Hampshire Democratic Party has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from selling state voter lists to other political campaigns.

"In 2007, New Hampshire Democrats fought specifically for the right to sell voter data they had bought from the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office and expanded with more specific information regarding each voter," NHGOP Chairwoman Jeanie Forester said in a statement released by the party. (More information on the Democrats' legal fight to sell voter data can be found in this Associated Press story.)

Asked about the fact that voter data is already routinely sold, Lasky said the law is limited in who is allowed to buy that data. Allowing political groups to buy copies of the checklist, she said, is about “getting good information out so that the voter makes an informed decision when he or she votes.”

“It’s a good point about selling the lists, but that’s what the law is,” Lasky said. “And I think it’s important that people get information out, in terms of voter information.”