Kentucky Secretary of State Accused of Improperly Gathering Voter Data

A recently-fired staff member claims in part that Secretary of State Grimes gave staff unwarranted access to the voter registration system.

by Daniel Desrochers, Lexington Herald-Leader / October 26, 2017
Hacker activity affecting the vote count in a few key districts in a small subset of states could swing a tight election race in one direction or the other. Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

(TNS) — The recently-fired assistant to the director of the State Board of Elections alleged in a letter to some members of the board that the office of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes improperly gathered voter information from the state’s voter registration system during campaigns.

In the letter, Matthew Selph, who was fired by the Board of Elections Tuesday along with Director Maryellen Allen, recalled a conversation with a staffer in the Secretary of State’s Office who said he was directed by the office to gather information “probably three or four times . . . every time they were running.”

He did not specify what information was gathered. Selph has reported the conversation to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission.

“Data that is released is documented, recorded and tracked through every step of the system to ensure that everything was done properly,” Selph, a Republican, wrote. “When the data was taken out of this building on a thumb drive, that trust was broken. We have no way to know what was on it, where it went or what it was used for.”

In the 17-page letter, which was sent Oct. 21 to four of the six members of the State Board of Elections, Selph launched a bevy of complaints against Grimes, a Democrat, and her staff, including allegations that Grimes granted staff improper access to the voter registration system, which contains information on every registered voter in the state, and that her office interfered with the state board of elections staff when granting a contract.

Grimes was not immediately available for comment, but said Tuesday that Selph and Allen were fired because “their services are no longer needed.”

According to state law, statewide candidates can request voter information from the State Board of Elections and are charged $450 for each request. They are then given a disk with their requested information. Grimes has only paid $450 once despite running two campaigns, according to Selph.

The candidate can get access to voters’ names and addresses, county code, precinct code, gender, party, ZIP code, date of birth, date of registration, and five-year voting history generated from the statewide voter registration database. There is other information in the database, like a unique voter registration number and Social Security numbers, that is not given to candidates.

The voter registration system consists of all qualified registered voters in the state and is organized by county and precinct. The Secretary of State does not have access to the voter registration database, according to an advisory opinion from the Executive Branch Ethics Commission in 2010.

Selph also alleged that more than five secretary of state staffers were given administrative access to the voter registration system, meaning they had the ability to make changes to the system.

Selph was told the staffers were given access to monitor the complaint system on election day. Upon hearing the explanation, Selph said he changed the status of the staffers to “read only,” only to see them be switched back to administrative access again.

Selph’s letter also included several accusations of the Secretary of State’s Office exerting authority over the staff of the state board of elections, which is supposed to be an independent, bipartisan organization.

In particular, he alleged the secretary of state approved a contract with an outside agency, CyberScout, against the wishes of the State Board of Election staff and without a vote from the Board of Elections, which contains three Democratic members and three Republican members. CyberScout is a technology company that specializes in identity protection services and data breach services. They were awarded a $150,000 contract for consulting services in June.

Selph said he was told the board voted on the contract in a closed session.

John Steffen, the former executive director of the ethics commission and current executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, said he has seen the claims and he considers them very serious.

“Mr. Selph went to the Ethics Commission at my urging as the concerns that were being raised by the staff of SBE regarding the secretary of state were ones that needed to be looked into by the Ethics Commission,” Steffen said. “The concerns were being brought to me by Matt and others on the SBE staff due to my 11 years of employment with Ethics. They were serious enough concerns to me that I accompanied Matt to the Ethics Commission and sat in with him when he was presenting his complaint to the staff there.”

The secretary of state did not give Selph, or former director Maryellen Allen, a reason for why they were fired Tuesday.

Selph said in a statement that he thinks he was fired as “direct retaliation from the Secretary of State” for his concerns. He also said in his memo to the board members that the secretary of state interviewed an employee of the State Board of Elections to find out if he was harassing female employees on the staff.

“I honestly cannot think of one instance ever” where he harassed his staff, Selph said.

Steffen, who shares an office with the State Board of Elections, said he had never seen evidence of Selph intimidating staff.

“The secretary of state orchestrated the termination of two whistle-blowers today, rather than let the Ethics Commission’s investigations run their course,” Steffen said. “In my mind it was pure retaliation for two state employees who did nothing but what they were obligated to do by the Executive Branch Code of Ethics.”

Allen was interviewed by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission on Monday. The executive director of the ethics commission, Kathryn Gabhart, is a former general counsel to the State Board of Elections. Her husband, Aaron, still works for the Board of Elections.

©2017 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.