Come in and sit down at Anita Parsa’s kitchen table. Help yourself to the chocolate chip cookies and she’ll get you an iced tea. Might as well make yourself comfortable.
Because for the next hour, she’s going to school you on a massive voter-tracking program run by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
“I like to figure out puzzles,” Parsa says. “I like to crack things, and that’s what this is all about.”
This particular puzzle was Kobach’s Interstate Crosscheck system, which holds voter registration data for 25 states. A list of more than 85 million voters, it purports to catch election fraud by weeding out double voting.
Crosscheck reportedly provided the numbers behind President Donald Trump’s baseless claim, after the 2016 election, that he would have won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” – an assertion that Kobach had helped fuel.
After his inauguration, when Trump appointed Kobach, with Vice President Mike Pence, to lead his now-defunct Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, Kobach attempted to take the Crosscheck model national. His idea was to get federal jury-service data to identify duplicate voter registrations, according to public documents.
Enter Parsa, a stay-at-home mom from Mission Hills, whose tenacious work and Twitter skills ultimately led the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the cybersecurity of Kobach’s favorite tool, and whose efforts have states thinking twice about participating in a system that has proven to be inaccurate and inefficient.
Her initial concern about questionable government spending priorities turned into an obsession as Parsa shared her own investigation of Crosscheck with, well, anyone who would listen.
“What we did was: ‘Let’s expose this so they fix it,’” she said, “and it bothers me that they aren’t honest about it.”
What is Crosscheck?
By the time Parsa started looking into Crosscheck, it had been up and running for more than a decade.
Crosscheck was created in 2005 by then-Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh, along with officials from Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa, with a modest goal of eliminating double registrations from voter rolls. Such registrations most often happen after people move to nearby states and register at their new addresses.
When Kobach inherited the system in 2011, he grew it into a powerful tool for his own causes. Saying he needed the authority to weed out massive voter fraud caused by people who voted in two states, Kobach proposed that the Kansas Legislature grant him the power to prosecute offenders. Lawmakers agreed in 2015, and Kobach is now the only secretary of state in the country to have such powers.
Kobach told KCUR in June that he used Crosscheck to win prosecutorial powers from the state legislature, offering large numbers of registrations that Crosscheck had flagged.
Yet Kobach’s own office admits that Crosscheck — because of its simplified searches that use only first names, last names and birth dates — creates a high number of false positives. And in fact, double voting in the U.S. is rare, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
That didn’t stop Kobach, who used his unique power to prosecute nine cases. The offenders were mostly older white Republican men who said they had made honest mistakes, sometimes because they owned property in two states.
Still, armed with those high numbers of false positives created by Crosscheck, along with discredited studies, Trump used Kobach’s math to justify his unsupported claim of 3 million illegal Clinton voters. Trump called for a “major investigation” into voter fraud, and Kobach told reporters he had encouraged the president to call for the probe.
But in 2017, election officials in more than 40 states refused to comply when Kobach, as head of Trump’s election commission, asked for their voter rolls. Public records released by Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democratic member of the commission, revealed that Kobach had already been working behind the scenes with the White House to use Crosscheck on a national level.
Dunlap said Kobach was planning to ask all federal court clerks to turn over lists of people “deemed ineligible or excused from federal jury service due to death, relocation, convictions, or lack of citizenship.”
Dunlap issued the public documents in August, blasting Trump and Kobach as making false claims about voter fraud.
“I have no way of knowing whether these requests were issued or, if not, why not, but Vice Chair Kobach’s and certain commissioners’ cavalier attitude towards vacuuming data is troubling,” Dunlap wrote in a public letter.
Information released as part of Dunlap’s lawsuit reveals other conflicts between what Kobach told the public and what the commission was attempting to do.
In Kansas, for example, the state’s election director, Bryan Caskey, told KCUR in March that no Crosscheck data had ever been sent to the presidential commission because there are rules on who can receive that information as part of the Crosscheck system.
“This office did not in any way, shape or form send data up to the presidential commission for the Crosscheck,” Caskey said.
But in a July 2017 email (found here on page 352), Kobach told Andrew Kossack, the voter integrity commission’s executive director, that Caskey would be calling him “about giving the WH (White House) a copy of our matching program.”
(KCUR asked for clarification on the discrepancy this month, but Kobach’s office did not respond to several emails.)
The voter integrity commission folded in January 2018 after less than a year of work.
Meanwhile, Kobach used his own close primary race as a call for more action. Kobach told KCUR in June that if the need arises, he will draft more legislation aimed at what he calls voter fraud. (He won the primary by just 350 votes.)
“The left continues to tell us that voter fraud is a myth, because fraudulent votes are a tiny percentage of total votes cast,” he wrote in an August Breitbart piece. “That’s like claiming the drunk driving is a myth, because drunk drivers are a tiny percentage of total drivers on the road. It’s nonsense.”
Who was paying?
Anita Parsa remembers first hearing of Crosscheck in an online magazine article just before the 2016 presidential election. That piece laid out the case that Crosscheck was a tool for voter suppression because of its high rate of false positives, and because its lack of identifiers for people with common names put them on lists for possible purging.
Her first reaction was disbelief that Kansas had enough money to pay for a system covering 25 states. Despite years of drastic budget cuts under former Gov. Sam Brownback, Kobach traveled around the country promoting Crosscheck as a free tool.
“At that time, you know, this street was just full of signs saying ‘Fund our schools! Fund our schools!” Parsa says, pointing out a window to her tree-lined block.
“And I was thinking, ‘Why would we foot the bill for this thing?’ That was the only interest I had at the very beginning.”
A computer programmer by training, Parsa, 53, runs a small business booking vacation houses out of her home while caring for her three kids. Her husband, a radiologist, has a demanding schedule.
Before Crosscheck and Kobach, Parsa was immersed in what she called “travel hacking,” finding ways for her family to take vacations on frequent flyer miles and points.
After turning her attention to Crosscheck, she concluded that Kansas was probably not spending enough on data security for a system that held so much sensitive information — half of all U.S. voter registrations at the time.
Parsa prides herself on her analytical skills and her ability to focus deeply on a single topic. Not especially political, she’s been registered as unaffiliated for years. But as she uncovered more about Crosscheck, she felt she had to do something.
“I’m offended personally,” Parsa says. “I was raised on a small farm in Kansas. If it’s important to do, do it and do it right. And if it’s not important to do, we have other chores, so get rid of it.”
Not a bot
Parsa took her case to Twitter, creating @LeaveCrosscheck (it has around 1,100 followers). She contacted a state lawmaker, then a friend asked her speak at an ACLU event, and she built a website. Still, not many people seemed to care.
“I nearly got kicked out of a New Year's party because I wouldn't stop going on and on about it,” Parsa admits.
But she had a social media breakthrough on June 29, 2017. That’s the day Kobach asked all 50 states to send voter roll data to the White House.
Parsa had been headed out to do errands, but when she saw Twitter was aflame with the news, she stopped and went to her computer.
“I spent the entire day saying, ‘If you're worried about this, you should know your state has been doing this. They had been sending this data to Kansas for this other program.’
“Over and over and over, to the point where I finally just copied it and was just pasting it in response to people so much that day that I got shut out of Twitter for looking like a bot-driven account.”
Meanwhile, a progressive group, Indivisible Chicago, began Tweeting and promoting its own website, called “End Crosscheck.” Group leaders and Parsa began talking and sharing information they’d obtained from public records requests.
From an open records request to the state of Florida, for example, Parsa had picked up the private information of 945 Kansans, as well as encryption passwords for the system.
She convinced the group that instead of trying to warn the country about voter suppression, its members should be talking about dangerous data security breaches.
“The conversations you can have with Republicans and Democrats and independents and anybody with a brain,” she says, “is the data security issue.”
That message was a winner. Parsa and her allies tipped off the national press, triggered hearings at the Kansas Legislature and caught the attention of the Department of Homeland Security.
DHS agents visited the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, Caskey confirmed, but neither he nor DHS would provide any details.
“The transmission of the voter registration data is where we are particularly concerned, to make sure that there’s no possibility that it could be intercepted,” Kobach told KCUR during a June interview. “So that’s where we’re working with DHS to make sure that we have the highest standards in the industry.”
Kobach said his office is interviewing cyber-security firms and vendors, but he wouldn’t speculate on just when a company would be hired or how much it would cost Kansas.
A dogged pursuit
By summer, election officials across the country were reconsidering using Crosscheck and dropping out of the system. The ACLU filed a federal class-action lawsuit charging that Kobach’s “reckless maintenance” of Crosscheck violated voters’ constitutional right to privacy. The suit asks that Kobach halt any Crosscheck transmission of personal voter data until industry security standards are implemented.
Anita Parsa said she doesn’t have a problem with being called an activist. Though she wonders if that term goes far enough.
“I really want people to understand what's happening, to understand the risks of Crosscheck,” she said. “But my goal in educating them is to get them to want change as well. So really I'm trying to get other people to be more active and more aware and push for competence and push for improvements.”
The Parsa who was not very politically inclined in the past has obviously changed. Although she’d long been an unaffiliated voter, on Kansas Primary Day, August 7, she switched to Republican so she could vote against Kobach. She’s since gone back to unaffiliated.
Although she doesn’t work for any campaign, Parsa has used her Twitter to endorse Brian McClendon, a Democrat running for Secretary of State against Scott Schwab, the Republican candidate.
While she’s still deep in the mix of Crosscheck, Parsa says she’ll follow this through until she sees change.
“I’ll run this down until it’s done and then there will be something else. I don’t know what it will be,” she said. “My nature is: I’m a dog with a bone.”
This story is part of a national report on voter suppression. The investigation was funded through a collaboration with KCUR and APM Reports, thanks to a grant from The Corporation For Public Broadcasting.
Peggy Lowe is an investigative reporter with KCUR and APM Reports. She's on Twitter, @peggyllowe.