Debate Over Crosscheck Voter Data Program Reaches Into Illinois

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Federal election law requires states to keep accurate and up-to-date voter registration rolls. But one tool to help them do so is at the center of a partisan debate.

In Illinois, many Democrats are calling on the state Board of Elections to stop participation in the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, or Crosscheck, for short.

Hear Jim Meadows report for Illinois Public Media (Nov. 14, 2017)

Illinois is one of about 28 states that share voter registration data with Crosscheck, which uses it to look for voters who are registered at more than one address.

Participation in the program is free. But many Democrats have come out against the program, including Aaron Ammons, a candidate for Champaign County Clerk.

“I can understand how initially, it may have been used or brought or pitched to the Illinois State Board of Elections,” said Ammons. “However, Kris Kobach, he has weaponized this program with the intent of voter suppression.”

Kobach is the Kansas Secretary of State, whose office runs the Crosscheck program. The Trump administration tapped him to be vice-chair of an advisory panel on voter fraud.

But Democrats accuse Kobach of using Crosscheck to suppress minority voting. Ammons and other critics say Crosscheck’s listings of potential duplicate voter registrations wrongly implicate people who just happen to have the same name and birthdate — and due to different naming customs, a disproportionate number of those people are minorities. Ammons says Crosscheck has a high number of so-called “false positives,” and that some states used that data to remove voter registrations that are actually legitimate.

Several Illinois lawmakers have publicly asked the Illinois State Board of Elections to stop using the Crosscheck program, including Aaron Ammons’s wife, State Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana. Both U.S. Senators from Illinois, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, also have asked the ISBE to stop using Crosscheck.

“The invalid findings produced by Crosscheck have led some States to improperly deny Americans an opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to vote,”  Duckworth and Durbin wrote in a Oct. 27 letter to the Board of Elections.

Local Republican Reply

Matt Grandone, one of two Republican candidates for Champaign County Clerk, says improper denial of voting rights is not a problem in Illinois, because raw voter-registration data is carefully checked by local election authorities. Grandone is also a Champaign County clerk employee and says local election agencies don’t remove anyone from the voter rolls, just because their name shows up in a Crosscheck search.

“It’s just one more thing for us to use,” Grandone said of the Crosscheck data. “And again, the onus is on us to make sure that we’re going that extra step, and we’re confirming with the other jurisdictions to say, ‘Hey send us some more information. This isn’t enough.’ I don’t think it’s a case where we want to just say, ‘Let’s scrap it completely.’”

Plus, Grandone says, Illinois citizens whose voter registration is in question can simply register again by showing valid identification — even on Election Day.

A second Republican running for Champaign County Clerk also says any problems with the Crosscheck program are not a big factor in Illinois. Jon Rector is a Champaign County Board member who is running for the GOP county clerk nomination, with the backing of former county clerk Mark Shelden.

“There are some issues with the false positives,” said Rector, “but there’s still some benefits; and a lot of it seems to be partisan bickering at the state level that we need to sort through.”

Data Security Questions

Aaron Ammons concedes the point that the Illinois same-day registration law protects voters from improperly losing their right to vote. But he says the state’s use of Crosscheck still enables purging voter rolls in other states. He says Illinois voter data is vulnerable in another way, because Crosscheck doesn’t do enough to keep its data safe from hackers.

Ammons cites investigative work led by Jeff Radue of the anti-Trump-administration group Indivisible Chicago. Radue says Crosscheck encrypts their voter data for its delivery back and forth between participating states and a central server maintained by election officials in Arkansas. But he says Crosscheck doesn’t encrypt emails sent to the states containing the decryption password. And Radue says Crosscheck makes the problem worse by using just one password for all of the participating states.

“So if a bad actor were to gain the access keys to the server, and were able to hack into the server where all of this information is stored, they could then access all voter registration result for all of the Crosscheck membership states with that one decryption password,” Radue said.

ERIC, An Alternative To Crosscheck

Aaron Ammons says that, if he’s elected Champaign County Clerk, he would put pressure on the state Board of Elections to drop Crosscheck and depend more on another program it’s also using — the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC.

ERIC is a non-profit service used by Illinois and 19 other states, plus the District of Columbia. It’s governed by a board made up of officials from member states. (Illinois State Board of Elections Executive Director Eric Sandvoss is one of ERIC’s directors).

ERIC uses more data points than Crosscheck does to look for duplicate voter registrations, such as driver’s license or state ID numbers, and the last four digits of the voter’s Social Security number. It also has more protocols in place to protect its data from hacking. But, unlike Crosscheck, states must pay to use ERIC.  And Republican County Clerk candidate Matt Grandone says that’s been a problem.

“For a long time, with no state budget, it was one of those things where Illinois didn’t have the ability to pay the membership fee,” said Grandone. “I believe at this point they have now had this worked out. Illinois is one of about eight states that are member states of both ERIC and Crosscheck.”

That eight-state overlap is a clue to why the Illinois state Board of Elections may be reluctant to heed the call of Democrats to drop Crosscheck altogether, in favor of ERIC. Board of Elections general counsel Ken Menzel says neither program covers the entire country — or even all the states adjacent to Illinois, which are of particular interest to elections officials when hunting down duplicate registrations.

State Board of Elections officials will address the Crosscheck controversy when they testify at a joint legislative hearing Wednesday in Chicago before the state Senate Telecommunications & Information Technology Committee and the House Elections and Campaign Finance Committee, whose members include State Rep. Carol Ammons of Urbana.

The Board of Elections is expected to discuss Crosscheck again at its next scheduled meeting on the following Monday, Nov. 20.  But any change may be difficult, now that Crosscheck has become such a partisan issue. The Elections Board is evenly split with four Democrats and four Republicans.

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