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A Onetime Rising Democratic Star Faces Questions About Voter Privacy

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who attained national prominence for a failed Senate run against Mitch McConnell, is taking heat because her staff has routinely examined the voting records of state employees, job applicants and even potential political rivals.

In an appearance on MSNBC in July 2017, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes expressed her vehement opposition to giving voter data to President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission, which had requested it from election officials in all 50 states. The privacy risks were simply too high, she said.

“There is not enough bourbon here in Kentucky to make this request seem sensible,” Grimes said. “Not on my watch are we going to be releasing sensitive information that relates to the privacy of individuals.”

But beginning months before she made that statement, Grimes’ own staff had been looking up hundreds of voters in the very same registration system. One of her former staffers first revealed the practice last summer but provided little detail.

Now, an investigation by ProPublica and the Lexington Herald-Leader shows that the searches were extensive and targeted prominent state politicians, including gubernatorial candidate Rocky Adkins, who could have been Grimes’ opponent in the Democratic primary. Grimes, who had been considering a bid, announced last week that she has decided not to run for the governorship.

Grimes’ luster has dimmed of late. She was seen as a rising Democratic star when, at age 35, she ran a doomed race against Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014. Now, three state agencies are pursuing investigations against her office — a result of complaints filed by numerous state employees and officials. At least four have quietly filed complaints with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission; two others have complained publicly. (In addition, Grimes’ father was indicted on federal charges for allegedly making illegal campaign contributions to her 2014 Senate campaign; he has pleaded not guilty.) Grimes has defended her conduct.

Grimes’ staff made questionable use of its unprecedented access to the voter registration system, or VRS. They looked up applicants for non-political positions with the seeming purpose of discovering their party affiliation. State law prohibits inquiring as to whether such applicants are Republicans or Democrats.

Her staff searched for hundreds of voters, mostly state employees outside the secretary of state’s office, for no discernible reason. Documents show they looked up current and former employees, a federal judge, the Kentucky education commissioner and every member of the Kentucky Board of Education.

Grimes during a special meeting of the State Board of Elections at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, on Aug. 28, 2018. Photo: Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader

They even searched for members of the ethics commission who are investigating Grimes herself.

Presented with questions from ProPublica and the Herald-Leader, Grimes took a two-pronged stance: She cast doubt on the accuracy of the logs that revealed the searches while defending her right to engage in such searches.

Grimes asserted that the search logs had “not been verified” despite the fact that similar logs were provided last August to the agencies investigating Grimes’ conduct, including the ethics commission, the state personnel board and a special prosecutor appointed by the Kentucky attorney general. She also said it “boggles my mind” that anyone would criticize her access to the system given that she is the state’s “chief elections official.”

On Jan. 24, six nights after ProPublica and the Herald-Leader posed questions about the VRS searches, Grimes went to Franklin Circuit Court in Frankfort. She filed a pre-emptive action requesting that a judge declare her right to gain access to the VRS. The suit names as defendants the executive director and assistant executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections or SBE, which is charged with overseeing the state’s elections and maintaining the voter rolls. (The executive director has filed an ethics complaint against Grimes.)

The filing asserts that Grimes’ office is “legally entitled to access the VRS pursuant to federal and Kentucky law. Indeed, access is necessary to perform the duties imposed on the Secretary of State by federal and Kentucky law.” The filing describes assertions that Grimes’ staff used the VRS to uncover party affiliations as “inaccurate” but goes on to assert that the office has the right to that information because Kentucky law requires the SBE staff to be bipartisan.

At least one Democratic election official in Kentucky takes a different view. “It’s inappropriate for the secretary of state’s office to have access at all,” said Don Blevins Jr., the clerk for Fayette County. “The fact that they’re abusing that privilege is no surprise.”

Grimes runs the first secretary of state’s office in Kentucky history to have such access. Trey Grayson, who held the position from 2004-11, said he could not think of a reason he or his staff would have needed it. Any need to access the system, he said, could have been accomplished by consulting the SBE. (The SBE is separate from the secretary of state’s office but closely linked to it; it’s chaired by the secretary of state.)

In fact, when Grayson served as secretary of state, Kentucky’s ethics commission ruled he could run for a Senate seat without recusing himself as chief elections officer expressly because he had no access to the rolls, which could have given him an advantage. The ethics commission has since said that opinion no longer stands in light of Grimes’ access.

Grayson said such separation “provided comfort for Kentuckians that no one person — specifically, the secretary of state — had too much authority over elections,” he said, adding that he and his predecessors “had the good sense to maintain that setup.”

State Sen. Damon Thayer introduced a bill several weeks ago that would block the secretary of state’s office and the board members of the SBE from accessing the VRS. The searches “make you pause,” Thayer said. “You wonder, is she conducting some sort of witch hunt?”

Grimes’ use of the VRS first raised questions in early 2017 when Matt Selph, then assistant executive director of the SBE, noticed that a voting precinct had been deleted from the system. He found that Grimes and seven of her staff members had administrative access to it.

It allowed her staff to see, and change, extensive personal data, though there’s no indication that they did so. One state official called the information “a starter kit for identity theft.” That access was then reduced to “read-only” in February 2017.

Pieces of the voter roll contained in Kentucky’s VRS have always been accessible. The public has the ability to search for a person’s party affiliation and voting precinct if they can supply a first name, last name and year of birth. Anyone can also buy a more extensive version of the voter roll for a fee. That version includes each voter’s full name, birth year, party affiliation, address, precinct and whether the voter has cast a ballot (but not for whom) in the past five years.

Matt Selph in the Lexington Herald-Leader office in Lexington. Photo: Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader

Internal access to the system reveals far more. Administrators can view voters’ drivers license numbers, every address ever linked to a voter, full birth dates, phone numbers, email addresses, Social Security numbers for some voters, disability status, military status and the addresses of voters — like domestic violence survivors — who have petitioned to have their address kept off the public roll.

Relatively few people have full access. County clerks and their deputies have such privileges in order to add people to the voter rolls but can make changes only in their counties. The SBE maintains the voter roll for the state and has the ability to make changes statewide. Grimes and her staff demanded the same access as the SBE staff before the 2016 election, claiming they needed it to monitor voter complaints.

Grimes says she no longer has access to the system, but her assistant secretary of state and elections director have maintained read-only privileges. Months after his discovery, Selph submitted a detailed 12-page complaint to the ethics commission and the board of the SBE, explaining his objections to her staff’s access to the VRS, among other things. The board voted to fire him shortly thereafter. (Selph has since filed a whistleblower suit against the state.)

Selph’s concerns have been echoed by current SBE Executive Director, Jared Dearing, and multiple county clerks, who say there is no legitimate reason for Grimes to have access to the database.

In August 2018, as part of his own complaint letter, Dearing first publicly accused Grimes and her staff of not only having inappropriate access, but also of searching for employees as well as job applicants in order to identify their political affiliation.

ProPublica and the Herald-Leader have examined documents that reveal the applicants Dearing was alluding to. They show that in April 2018, Lindsay Hughes Thurston, then an assistant secretary of state and now a Fayette County district judge, looked up Rashad Cleveland and Alan Hess. At the time, both were applicants for an IT position at the SBE. Hess is registered as a Republican and Cleveland as a Democrat. Dearing told the Personnel Board that Thurston had encouraged him to hire Cleveland, despite his view that Hess was more qualified. Dearing ignored this recommendation.

Attorneys representing the SBE have sometimes said searches of job applicants were part of “standard background checks.” But Thomas Stephens, the head of the state agency that performs background checks, also testified that the only information available in the voter roll unavailable in a state background check was political affiliation. “At this point, I am disturbed,” he said of the searches, adding that he could not “fathom” any need to use the VRS as part of a background check.

In several instances, Grimes’ staff engaged in what seem to be highly political searches. For example, Mary Sue Helm, director of elections in the secretary of state’s office, searched for Adkins, a member of the Kentucky house, during the 2018 legislative session after he said he was interested in running for governor. Grimes was then considering entering the race. In July, Helm looked up former Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, who spent much of the summer stumping for Democratic congressional candidate Amy McGrath and has endorsed and donated thousands to Attorney General Andy Beshear, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Adkins said he “needed to know more before commenting” and then declined to comment when presented with more information. Luallen said, “I can’t imagine why my name was looked up.”

For her part, Thurston summoned records for Thomas Fulton, a federal judge who’d presided over a swearing in ceremony for new citizens on the day he was searched. She sought records for “Benjamin Adams,” potentially Brig. Gen. Benjamin F. Adams III, the current commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs. And she checked out a former veterans affairs commissioner, Norman Arflack, who is now the United States marshal in eastern Kentucky.

Only days before Sherry Whitehouse was named as a Democratic board member of the SBE in April, Thurston looked her up, too. On a single day in May, Thurston searched for more than 100 people, many of whom appear to be state employees across a range of agencies. Records show she continued her searches, even after being publicly criticized for the practice, until she left to become a judge.

Thurston did not reply to a written list of questions. Neither Whitehouse, Frazier nor the Department of Veterans Affairs returned calls seeking comment. A spokesperson for the Board of Education declined to comment.

At the September SBE meeting, which occurred after Dearing had publicly accused Grimes of inappropriate access, Grimes did not address these searches. Instead, she directed her ire at Dearing, who she said had jeopardized the security of Kentucky’s voter registration system by releasing search logs to investigators.

“Respectfully, Mr. Dearing, it is highly inappropriate for you as the executive director to put information about our voter registration system, the security of which is paramount to our cybersecurity efforts, in the public domain without the authorization of the chair, without the authorization of the board attorney and in the fashion in which you are attempting to do it now,” Grimes said.

“That’s why they call me a whistleblower,” Dearing interjected. Grimes then threatened to have state police remove him from the meeting.

This story, the first of a three-part series, was co-published with the Lexington Herald-Leader. It was originally published by ProPublica.

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When W.Va. Delegate Compared LGBT to KKK, He Highlighted the History of Religious Right Prejudice

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Newly elected Del. Eric Porterfield was sworn in to the West Virginia House before the start of the 2019 session. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

When West Virginia House of Delegates member Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, called the LGBT community “the modern-day version of the Ku Klux Klan” in an interview with a Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter last week, it drew condemnation not just in the state, but nationwide. But Porterfield, in fact, joined a long legacy of right-wing evangelicals who have conflated legal protections for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people with white supremacy and domestic terrorism.

The Southern Baptist Convention in 2012 resolved that “homosexual rights activists” had “misappropriated the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement” in advocating for marriage equality and other legal protections.

Bryan Fischer, former director of issues analysis for the American Family Association, has compared LGBT people to Nazis numerous times, arguing in a 2010 column that “homosexuality gave us Adolph [sic] Hitler.”

And Tony Perkins, president of the Christian conservative lobbying group the Family Research Council, argued in a 2018 column on the organization’s website that marriage equality was really “about obliterating every moral and cultural boundary humans have ever known.”

“The LGBTQ is suppressing the freedom of people that disagree with them and forcing their ideology,” Porterfield told Rachel Anderson, a reporter and weekend anchor with the Bluefield, West Virginia, TV station WVVA, in a separate interview.  

“If they do not get their way, they cause chaos, apply pressure, intimidate, internet stalk,” he added. “They’re the most evil-spreading and hate-filled group in this country.”

Porterfield’s comments came after a controversial rant in a legislative committee meeting, during which lawmakers were debating a bill to add protections to the state’s housing and employment nondiscrimination law for sexual orientation and gender identity.

His broader claim that “the LGBTQ” are harming America by lobbying for equal protections under the law is not new either. It’s right out of the right-wing evangelical playbook, according to Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and historian whose work studying the religious right has been recognized with numerous accolades, including an Emmy nomination for script-writing and hosting the PBS documentary based on his book, “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.

Balmer said that right-wing evangelical leaders often rely on a “rhetoric of victimization” to make themselves seem persecuted in the face of changing social norms.

“That, by the way, is one of the reasons that they embrace Trump…he’s very good at this rhetoric of victimization,” Balmer said. “What this guy in West Virginia is saying is just a variant on this. ‘We’re the ones who are under siege, we’re the ones who have some sort of grievance that needs to be redressed.’”

But even given this context, Porterfield’s comparison of LGBT people with the KKK is a strange one, given the religious right’s origins. Although many believe abortion had a central role in pushing evangelical leaders toward politics, pro-life rhetoric did not become important in those circles until well past the 1970s.

In a Politico Magazine piece, Balmer traces the beginnings of the evangelical right’s political efforts to a court case in the late 1960s, when a group of Black parents in Holmes, Mississippi, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department in hopes of preventing segregated private K-12 schools from receiving full tax-exempt status. As the Internal Revenue Status targeted the tax exempt status of private, segregated primary and secondary schools, leaders like the late Jerry Falwell became involved in the fight. “In some states it’s easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school,” Falwell is quoted as saying at the time in an article in The Nation exploring the preacher’s racist roots.

The racism exhibited by leaders of the evangelical right at the time was not limited to their efforts to preserve whites-only Christian academies. Tony Perkins, the aforementioned president of the Family Research Council, had no problem associating with the KKK when he served in Louisiana’s House of Representatives. He even spent time with David Duke, a former grand wizard for the white supremacist hate group.

“The religious right has its roots in racism, I’m sorry to say,” Balmer said. “So for this guy to kind of call on that trope is both ironic, but also fully compatible with the history of this movement.”

Heather Warren, a University of Virginia religion professor who studies American religious history, agreed with Balmer, adding that racism and Christianity were intertwined not just in evangelical movements, but in “hardcore KKK ideology.” Warren, who is also an Episcopal priest, said that in the 1950s and ‘60s, leaders in the religious right were fighting not to make America great again, but “to keep America Christian.”

“And Christian and white and democracy all went together,” she said. “They were all interchangeable. There was this way that it all added up to a white supremacy.”

So laws and ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are a direct affront to democracy, Warren said, and an attack on democracy is synonymous with an attack on white Christianity and America, under this belief system.

“When Falwell was alive and writing, usually in his catalogue of phenomena and types of people who were eroding America and eroding American democracy, he’d often start off with homosexuals at the top of his list,” Warren said. “Feminists were close behind.”

It’s a convenient leap to make if you want to demonize the continued push for increased LGBT rights, which Porterfield seems to think are somehow wholly separate from the gay community. He clarified in his interview with Anderson that his original statement was an “anti-LGBTQ sentiment,” not an “anti-gay sentiment.”

Even before taking office, Porterfield made his positions on issues that directly impact the LGBT community clear. In a December interview, Porter condemned efforts to outlaw conversion therapy in West Virginia, a practice opposed by every major credible psychology or psychiatry organization. Porterfield called efforts to ban the practice “bigoted and discriminatory” and that the counseling practice should be protected as free speech.

Historically, conversion therapy methods have relied on tactics like castration, induced vomiting and electroshock therapy to “cure” LGBT people. While the unscientific and unethical therapeutic method has been banned or condemned in a number of states, including California and Washington State, New York is the only Appalachian state so far to outlaw it.

Porterfield’s comments, both before taking office and since, make it clear that he believes being criticized for bigotry is on par with a legacy of racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic violence rooted in white supremacy and white Christianity. By making this comparison, he’s dismissing that Black and LGBT Americans have faced far worse than a few mean comments online.

The KKK was infamous for carrying out lynchings against Black Americans, a hate crime that often involves hanging but often also can include being burned alive or shot multiple times. The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard’s, a gay college student from Wyoming who was beaten and left to die tied to a fencepost,is sometimes considered a lynching, and the history of lynching was painfully brought up for many Black LGBT Americans recently when Jussie Smollett, a Black gay actor, was assaulted by two men in Chicago who put a noose around his neck.

There’s hope, however, for Balmer in the form of younger white evangelicals who might not share Porterfield’s extreme beliefs.

“Not that his views are unique, and not that his vitriol is unique,” Balmer said. “But I think it’s changing, and much of it is generational.”

Balmer says young evangelicals are already showing they’re more concerned about issues like ending widespread hunger and poverty than whether someone is trans or attracted to a person of the same gender. Hopefully, he says, one day these young people will refuse to back other politicians like Porterfield and focus their efforts on finding solutions for struggling communities.

Tiffany Stevens (@tiffanymstevens) is an independent journalist living in Southwest Virginia. Their work focuses on the media, the LGBT community and Appalachia.

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West Virginia Lawmaker Faces Calls To Resign After Likening LGBTQ People To KKK, ‘Terrorist Group’

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West Virginia House of Delegates member Eric Porterfield during a recent floor session. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

This story was originally published by the Huffington Post and is used here  with permission.

West Virginia lawmaker Eric Porterfield is facing calls to resign after a string of homophobic remarks, such as likening the LGBTQ community to the Ku Klux Klan and saying he would “see if [his kids] can swim” if they came out as gay.

Porterfield (R-Mercer), who is a born-again Baptist missionary and is blind, was elected to the state’s House of Delegates in November. He has continued to stand by his bigoted views, accusing the LGBTQ community of being a “terrorist group” that has “no care for diversity of thought.”

“The LGBTQ is a modern-day version of the Ku Klux Klan, without wearing hoods with their antics of hate,” Porterfield told a reporter with the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Friday. 

West Virginia House of Delegates member Eric Porterfield during a recent floor session. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

He reportedly used the slur “faggot” in a committee meeting on Wednesday amid discussions over a proposed amendment that would restrict anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. That amendment failed to pass, the Gazette-Mail reported.

Porterfield, responding to backlash against his comments on Saturday, repeated his views to Bluefield station WVVA, adding that if his young son or daughter came out to him as gay, he would “see if she can swim … then I’d see if he can swim.”

The West Virginia Democratic Party on Friday called for Porterfield’s resignation.

“West Virginia has no room for someone who expresses such hate. Let alone room for him to hold a public office where he is supposed to represent the people of West Virginia,” WVDP Chairwoman Belinda Biafore said in a statement.

“His hate-filled remarks and actions speak volumes and so does the Republican Party’s silence. The Republican majority’s leadership needs to condemn these actions. Their silence is complicit and the people of West Virginia deserve better,” she added.

Among the Republicans publicly condemning Porterfield’s words was Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett, who characterized the homophobic comments as contrary to what the Bible teaches.

“As a Commissioner within Mercer County, I do not condone, nor accept this behavior of anyone, let alone an elected official. Likewise, this form of antics in representation of my county is not inclusive to the people within,” Puckett said in a Facebook post.

Delegate John Shott (R-Mercer) also distanced himself from Porterfield’s views, calling them “much too extreme.” 

“I don’t accept his categorization of that group nor do I think it’s productive to call anyone names when you are trying to advance the goals of the party. It’s not a productive approach to solving problems,” he told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. He added that Porterfield should learn to be “[discreet] with his words.”

Porterfield did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

This story was originally published by the Huffington Post and is used here  with permission.



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Fact-check: Has Unemployment in W.Va. Fallen Under GOP Governor?

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West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice holds a service dog onstage after announcing Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., that he will seek re-election in 2020. Photo: John Raby, AP Photo.

Unemployment has fallen across the country in recent years. But the West Virginia Democratic Party said in a recent tweet that it hasn’t fallen on Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s watch.

In a Jan. 9 tweet, the state party wrote, “FACT: Unemployment rate has not decreased since @WVGovernor took office. #wvpol #WVSOTS19″

Is that correct? We decided to check it out. (We reached out to a party representative but did not receive a response.)

Justice, elected as a Democrat in 2016, took office on Jan. 16, 2017. That month, the unemployment rate in West Virginia was 5.3 percent.

Justice became a Republican on Aug. 3, 2017. That month, the state unemployment rate stood at 5.2 percent.

And today? In the most recent month available, December 2018, the unemployment rate in West Virginia was 5.1 percent.

Is that a dramatic drop? No. But unlike what the tweet says, it is a decline.

It’s worth noting a limitation in the data, said Brian Lego, a research assistant professor at West Virginia University. Because West Virginia’s population is small, he said, the margin of error for the survey used to track the unemployment rate is big enough to produce uncertainty about small changes in the data, like those seen during Justice’s tenure.

“The change is statistically insignificant,” Lego said.

He added that regular revisions by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which collects the data, could produce small changes that affect the comparison.Our ruling

The West Virginia Democratic Party tweeted, “FACT: Unemployment rate has not decreased since @WVGovernor took office.”

The state unemployment rate did, in fact, decline from 5.3 percent to 5.1 percent on Justice’s watch. That said, it was an exceedingly narrow decline — in fact, economists say that the margin of error for the survey in question leaves in doubt how big the decline was.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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