CHICAGO — Voter rights advocates are pushing Illinois election officials to withdraw from a longtime multistate voter registration database over questions of accuracy, security and voter suppression.
The Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program is aimed at cleaning voter records and preventing voter fraud. States voluntarily provide their voter lists and the program searches for duplicates.
While a few states have quietly exited over data quality concerns, advocates in Democrat-leaning Illinois are taking it a step further with fresh claims about lax security, discrimination against minorities and questions about the role of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a contentious Republican who oversees the program and is vice chairman of President Donald Trump's election fraud commission.
Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights oppose it and advocates packed a recent State Board of Elections meeting after sending letters demanding Illinois end its cooperation. Now, over two dozen state lawmakers also want Illinois to withdraw. Their push comes as Trump's commission is asking states for voter information while it investigates Trump's unsubstantiated claims that millions of people voted illegally in 2016.
"Crosscheck is being used as a political tool to help Republicans win elections," said state Rep. Will Guzzardi, a Chicago Democrat. "This has gone much too far."
Kobach, who declined an interview, has defended the database. He's championed tough voter identification laws that critics claim suppress minority voters and helped draft proposals in numerous states aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. His views have been more heavily scrutinized since he was tapped for Trump's commission.
Past studies have shown voter fraud is exceedingly rare. Although voting in multiple places is illegal, being registered to vote in more than one state isn't. And that can happen when people move from one jurisdiction to another.
The origins of Crosscheck date to 2005, before Kobach was Kansas' chief election official. It started with Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska sharing information. Illinois joined in 2010. This year, 28 states participated. Four states have left Crosscheck: Florida, Washington, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
The perks are clear: It's free and provides hard-to-compile information.
But data experts are skeptical of Crosscheck, which handled more than 98 million voter records this year with roughly 3 million possible duplicates. A study this year by researchers at Stanford, Harvard and Yale universities noted a high error rate. In Illinois, advocates have claimed that minorities with common surnames are more likely to be flagged by the program. Crosscheck relies mostly on voters' names and birthdates.
It's up to states to decide how to pursue possible matches. Illinois officials take years to verify whether someone should be removed from state voter rolls.
But other states haven't been so cautious. For example, in 2014, officials in Idaho's Ada County admitted they wrongly purged more than 750 voters from the rolls based on Crosscheck matches.
Kansas' director of elections Bryan Caskey said states are warned about the possibility for "false positives."
"We're very open and clear about the search criteria and the limitations," he said.
Illinois officials say flawed data is better than no data. Last year, Illinois, with roughly 8 million active voters on the rolls, received possible matches on over 500,000 records.
Other concerns have been raised because passwords were sent via email. Kansas secretary of state officials say data wasn't at risk. Illinois election officials say those passwords are now obsolete.
Voter advocates support another system Illinois also uses, the Electronic Registration Information Center, created in 2012 by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Data experts say it's more accurate because it uses partial Social Security numbers to help find matches. But that system costs money to join and fewer states are involved.
"Are we better off losing all the data that we have that's not being misused here?" asked Illinois State Board of Elections' general counsel Ken Menzel. "A lot of the uproar that's come about is who is now overseeing the Kansas secretary of state's office."
One group behind the Illinois push to exit Crosscheck is Indivisible Chicago, which formed to "resist" Trump's agenda, including the election commission's attempts to get data.
"We can't have our voter registrations managed by someone who is that partisan," organizing member Jeff Radue said of Kobach.
Kobach, who's been sued several times by the ACLU, persuaded the Kansas Legislature to designate him the only chief state elections officer with prosecutorial power on election fraud. Since 2015, he's prosecuted 10 cases of people voting in Kansas while voting in another state, with eight ending in convictions or guilty pleas.
Speaking to a group of Republicans in the Kansas City area recently, Kobach mocked "the left" for downplaying election fraud despite "conviction after conviction."
"People realize they're still registered in their old state, and some people get tempted, and they think they can get away with it — and usually, they're right," said Kobach, who is running for governor. "That particular type of voter fraud is bipartisan."