“While many people today may take their right to vote for granted, the right for all of us to vote empowers us to take action and become active members of society. The right to vote is the power to change, to leave a mark in history, and voice our opinions. And the main importance of democracy is the participation of the people in this great country of ours to name their political representatives. As voters, we have the right to demand from our elected officials to answer not only for their behaviors, but also become the voices for all of us, protecting us from the very things that could harm us or cause detriment. We expect our elected officials to articulate the rights and duties of all citizens and protect us from threats. In a perfect world, the government is supposed to protect its citizens from unjust interference; in protecting this freedom for citizens, the intrusion must be subject to clearly defined limits.”
English teacher Margaret Chromey of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, sent me those words in thanks for our decision to follow Maine’s confidentiality statutes as they relate to information on Maine voters contained in the state voter registration files. The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, of which I’m a member, had requested the complete voter files from all the states to conduct research on American election security on June 28 but advised all election officials that such information would be made public. Since that conflicts with Maine law, we could not forward the information.
The commission was created by a presidential executive order in May, at least in part because of claims by President Donald Trump after the election that he lost the popular vote because of millions of illegally cast votes. Knowing how elections work in America, I have always been deeply skeptical of that claim. The request to join the commission affords me the opportunity to speak to just how well our elections are conducted, and to objectively entertain true allegations of wrongdoing, and if substantiated, to make productive recommendations for remediation. But in so doing, we should take great care to not construct barriers that would discourage or prevent legitimate voters from participation in democracy.
The request for all state voter files in a letter from the commission vice-chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, touched off an immediate firestorm of outrage all over the country — and the outrage was purely bipartisan. Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann — one of Kobach’s fellow Republicans — invited the commission to “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico” in response to the request.
Our work as a commission will begin in examining the threats to American elections, which include not only allegations of illegal activity, but also overdone “protections” that follow the exclusions of the dark history of poll taxes, literacy tests and district gerrymandering. The visceral response of the public to the commission’s request for voter data waves a bloody shirt in warning to us, a reminder that Americans take their right to vote seriously, and won’t entertain any interference in the exercise of that right.
My message to my neighbors in Maine is straightforward: We will do whatever we can to protect your private information, and we will strive to conduct elections in a way that enhances the confidence of the public in their sovereign right of democratic self-governance.
I couldn’t answer all of the hundreds of letters and emails I received about the commission request for data, but I responded to Margaret Chromey.
“My role as a public official,” I wrote, “is to do more than just follow the law or administer a bureaucracy. All of us have the obligation to hand forward that torch of liberty handed down to us by so many who may, themselves, never have had the chance to enjoy its light or warmth. What we do, we do not for expediency, but for ages unknown to come forth.”
Matt Dunlap is Maine’s secretary of state. He is a member of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.