WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge on Monday tossed a watchdog’s effort to keep President Donald Trump’s commission on alleged election fraud from requesting voter roll data from states.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly was a loss for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which had filed a lawsuit challenging the commission’s controversial request for the data.
Although Judge Kollar-Kotelly concluded EPIC had standing to bring the suit, she simultaneously found that the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity is not a federal agency.
“Defendants have represented that they are only collecting voter information that is already publicly available under the laws of the states where the information resides; and Defendants have clarified that such information, to the extent it is made public, will be de-identified,” the 35-page ruling states. “All of these representations were made to the Court in sworn declarations, and needless to say, the Court expects that Defendants shall strictly abide by them.”
EPIC had argued the commission is a federal agency, and as such, should be required to conduct a privacy impact assessment before it collects state voter data.
President Trump established the commission by executive order on May 11, shortly after he claimed without evidence that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because millions of people voted illegally.
EPIC filed its lawsuit five days after the commission’s vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, asked all 50 states and the District of Columbia to provide the body with their publicly available voter data.
The move sparked public outcry and pushback, and prompted several legal challenges, including EPIC’s.
The watchdog had alleged that the collection of state voter data violated a constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy.
But Kollar-Kotelly could not find any evidence that the commission — or the White House Information Technology Office that is managing the program — are federal agencies subject to the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, the E-Government Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
On that basis, Kollar-Kotelly found that the commission has no independent authority unrelated to its short-term mission to study federal election voting and registration processes, identify laws and rules that both enhance and undermine people’s confidence in the U.S. voting system, and submit a report with its findings to the president.
As such, she concluded that the commission is not required to conduct a privacy assessment.
“Here, the disclosure of a Privacy Impact Assessment may very well be in the equitable and public interest, but creating a right to such disclosure out of whole cloth, and thereby imposing an informational burden on the Commission where none has been mandated by Congress or any other source of law, is not,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote.
EPIC had primarily taken issue with the commission’s use of the Department of Defense “SAFE” system, which the commission had said would act as a temporary storage unit and conduit to collect the state voter data and transfer it to the White House.
During a July 7 preliminary hearing, Kollar-Kotelly wondered whether that brought the commission into the realm of a federal agency. EPIC then amended its complaint and added the DOD as a defendant.
However, the commission soon after abandoned its plan to use the SAFE system, and told the court it had destroyed the only data it had received from the state of Arkansas.
Although the commission has yet to say exactly how it will collect and store the data, Kollar-Kotelly could find no component of its current organization or structure that subjects it to the requirements of federal agencies.
EPIC’s president Marc Rotenberg said in a statement that the organization would continue to challenge the data collection.
“The commission cannot evade privacy obligations by playing a shell game with the nation’s voting records,” the statement said.