SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A group has been impersonating government officials, harassing New York residents at their homes and falsely accusing them of breaking the law, state officials have warned.
But what sounds like a scam aimed at people’s pocketbooks is actually part of a shakedown with a much different target: voters.
State prosecutors have sent a cease-and-desist order to a group called New York Citizens Audit demanding that it halt any “unlawful voter deception” and “intimidation efforts.”
It’s the type of tactic that concerns many state election officials across the country as conservative groups, some with ties to allies of former President Donald Trump and motivated by false claims of widespread fraud in 2020, push to access and sometimes publish state voter registration rolls, which list names, home addresses and in some cases party registration. One goal is to create free online databases for groups and individuals who want to take it upon themselves to try to find potential fraud.
The lists could find their way into the hands of malicious actors and individual efforts to inspect the rolls could disenfranchise voters through intimidation or canceled registrations, state election officials and privacy advocates warned. They worry that local election offices may be flooded with challenges to voter registration listings as those agencies prepare for the 2024 elections.
John Davisson, director of litigation at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the concern reflects the competing interests over voter data – a need to protect voter rolls from cybersecurity attacks against the desire to make them accessible so elections are transparent.
“It’s not surprising that this is a battleground right now,” he said.
Baseless claims of widespread voter fraud are part of what’s driving the efforts to obtain the rolls, leading to lawsuits over whether to hand over the data in several states, including Maine, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.
In New York, a warning from the state elections board preceded the cease-and-desist letter from the state attorney general’s office. Voters in 13 counties had been approached at their homes in recent weeks in an apparently coordinated effort by people impersonating election officials, in some cases wielding phony IDs, the board said. Residents were confronted about their voter registration status and accused of misconduct.
In one instance, people wearing identification badges accused a woman at her Glens Falls home of committing a crime by apparently being registered to vote in two counties, said Warren County spokesman Don Lehman. But the woman had already filed to change her registration and canvassers were apparently using out-of-date information, he said.
“She was quite shaken by the whole thing,” Lehman said. “She did nothing nefarious at all. Either these people don’t understand that or understand how the process works, but it seems like they were quite accusatory.”
State prosecutors found no evidence that any of the those contacted had committed voter fraud or any other type of crime, they said in their warning letter.
NY Citizens Audit emailed a statement that dismissed as “absurd” concerns that its canvassers might have impersonated an official or harassed anyone. Instead, the group urged election officials to investigate “each of these millions of suspected illegal registrations.”
“We train our people to do legal canvassing, and if ever verified, voter intimidation would be completely unacceptable and against our policy,” NY Citizens Audit Director Kim Hermance said in the statement.
One of the most ambitious groups, the Voter Reference Foundation, was founded after the 2020 presidential election by Republican Doug Truax of Illinois with a goal of posting online lists from every state. The VoteRef.com database so far includes information from 32 states and the District of Columbia and is run by Gina Swoboda, a former organizer of Trump’s 2020 campaign in Arizona.
A federal trial is scheduled to start later this month over the group’s fight to access and use New Mexico’s voter registration list.
The group also sued Pennsylvania, which refused to hand over the information and said that publishing it would put every registered voter at greater risk of identity theft or misuse of their information, said the state’s Office of Open Records.
Truax declined to speak to The Associated Press, but has said in a statement on the Pennsylvania case that, “We have a crisis of confidence in America when it comes to election results, and the answer is more transparency, not less.”
The head of elections in New Mexico, Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, fears many voters might withdraw from registration lists as personal data is posted online. Her office cites email inquiries about how to cancel voter registrations during a short-lived canvassing effort by election activists last year in southern New Mexico.
“Voters can and should expect a reasonable amount of privacy,” said Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat. “What Voter Reference is doing is saying, ‘If you have doubts about the election and who is registered to vote and who is voting, here is every voter’s information. Go out and figure it out for yourself whether these people are real.’”
The Voter Reference Foundation argues that federal law is on its side, citing public disclosure provisions of the National Voter Registration Act that require states to make a “reasonable” effort to keep the registration lists free of people who died or moved away. The foundation also invokes free speech and due-process rights.
Nearly every state prohibits the use or transfer of the lists for commercial purposes, while several confine access to political candidates, parties for campaign purposes and some government activities.
In March, New Mexico banned the transfer or publication of voter data online, with felony penalties and possible fines of $100 per voter.
Virginia data was removed from VoteRef.com after Republicans and Democrats united last year to ban online publication of registrations.
In Maine, an ongoing legal dispute over privacy and the use of voter lists is pitting state election regulators against a conservative-backed group that has been highlighting and litigating what it says are shortcomings in election systems for a decade. It has assembled voter rolls from multiple states.
The state historically provided voter registration lists to candidates and political parties before being sued in 2019 for failing to provide its voter list to the Public Interest Legal Foundation. In 2021, Maine’s governor signed a bill allowing the voter registration lists to be turned over to additional organizations, but with a stipulation that no voter names could be published in a way that compromises privacy.
The restrictions interfere with comparing lists across states, said the group’s president, J. Christian Adams, whose case against the state is scheduled for legal arguments Thursday at a Boston federal appeals court. Adams, a Republican, served on a commission Trump convened after his 2016 win to investigate voter fraud. The commission was disbanded without any finding of widespread fraud.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, said residents sharing details about voters, including addresses, is a bad idea.
“In an era of conspiracies and lies about our elections, integrity of voter information is hugely important,” she said. “We want to make sure that no voters are targeted or harassed or threatened because of their decision to register and cast a ballot.”
This story has been updated to correct the name of a law firm. It is the Public Interest Legal Foundation, not the Public Interest Law Foundation.
Associated Press writers David Sharp in Portland, Maine, and Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, also contributed to this report.