The Republican gubernatorial primary was just weeks away, and then-Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell had his sights set on securing the nomination.
Blackwell had served as mayor of Cincinnati and state treasurer before becoming Ohio’s top elections official, so a bid for governor in 2006 seemed a logical next step in his political career.
But in March of that year, his office caused a stir: The full Social Security numbers of 1.2 million Ohio voters were posted accidentally on the secretary of state’s website.
A month later, in a separate incident, Blackwell’s office inadvertently distributed voter lists with the Social Security numbers of 5.7 million voters. The numbers, by law, are supposed to remain private.
“It wasn’t good at all,” said former Ohio Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in an interview. “Sloppy … that’s what it was.”
While the two blunders didn’t prevent Blackwell from securing the nomination that May, he went on to lose the governor’s contest to Strickland. That contest and the Social Security debacle combined to make Blackwell well-known — at least briefly — outside Ohio. Now, it appears he’s about to step into the national spotlight again.
Blackwell, 69, has been tapped to serve on the Trump administration’s bipartisan voter fraud commission, an endeavor election officials nationwide have called a waste of time.
The panel, officially called the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, asked secretaries of state nationwide to provide voters’ personal information, including names, addresses and the last four digits of Social Security numbers. The commission has faced intense pushback from both Democrats and Republicans, while a watchdog group has filed a lawsuit arguing the commission’s request breaches privacy laws.
In 2004, two years before the incidents with the Social Security numbers, Blackwell ordered that county clerks not accept voter registrations turned in on anything less than 80-pound stock paper — the thickness of a postcard.
County clerks called the requirement unnecessary, and voting rights advocates alleged he was attempting to suppress the vote in a key swing state during a presidential election year. Under the intense criticism, Blackwell pulled back his order.
That same year, Blackwell ordered clerks to throw out provisional ballots if a person voted in the wrong precinct. A federal appeals court ultimately upheld Blackwell’s directive, though critics called it another attempt to suppress voting.
To one Ohio resident, Darrell Estep, the most troubling part from Blackwell’s time as secretary of state was the handling of Social Security numbers.
In 2006, Estep, a trucker who hauls automobiles around the country, was among those whose personal information landed on the secretary of state’s website. It remained on the site for several weeks.
“This was my privacy, and it was hindered,” Estep said Saturday from his home in Mount Orab, Ohio, about 40 miles east of Cincinnati. At the time, he filed a lawsuit against Blackwell and his office. In a quickly reached settlement, Blackwell agreed to remove the numbers from the website.
A month later, in April 2006, Blackwell’s office accidentally distributed voter lists — on 20 CDs to, among others, campaign consultants — that had the full Social Security numbers of 5.7 million voters. The disks were eventually returned to Blackwell’s office.
As for the Social Security numbers posted on the website, technical issues delayed their removal for almost a year.
Estep said he’s now concerned that Blackwell is on a commission seeking personal voter data.
“His office was so nonchalant about making my information public,” he said. “That wasn’t right.”
Blackwell did not respond to requests for comment. But Monty Lobb, who served as Blackwell’s assistant secretary of state, said his former boss is a man of integrity.
“In fact, the highest of integrity,” Lobb said. “When we realized there was an issue with the Social Security numbers, we quickly sought to fix it.”
He said Blackwell, among other things, helped speed up the process for Ohioans to get business licenses and never allowed his political beliefs to get in the way of decision making.
“He wants what’s best for the people,” Lobb said.
The commission on which Blackwell serves has seen plenty of pushback in recent days.
Its vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, sent the letter requesting personal voter information on June 28. To date, 21 states and the District of Columbia have declined to provide any data, according to a tally by the Brennan Center for Justice. Others, citing state law, will provide some, but not all of the data requested.
Last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research group, filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to block the commission’s requests for voter data. A decision could come this week.
The formation of the committee came about after President Trump alleged in January — without evidence — that between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes were cast in last year’s presidential election. (Trump prevailed in the electoral college, but lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes.)
In a 2008 New York Post op-ed, Blackwell warned of a “possibility for voter fraud on a scale never before seen in this country.”
This month Blackwell said on MSNBC the commission’s efforts will be to, among other things, gather “information that will give us a greater sense right now of what our exposure is as a collective system” to voter fraud.
Asked why the commission was necessary, he replied, “Any bad actor, whether foreign or domestic, any action that corrupts the integrity of our system, should be fair game for our exploration.”
Even so, Strickland said, the commission’s cause is not legitimate.
“There is not widespread voter fraud,” he said. “There just isn’t.... This commission is not legit, and Ken Blackwell definitely does not give it legitimacy.”