By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's commission investigating voter fraud may request voter roll data from U.S. states, a federal judge ruled on Monday, in a setback for groups that contend the effort could infringe on privacy rights.
The judge said a lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) watchdog did not have grounds for an injunction in part because the collection of data by the commission was not technically an action by a government agency so was not bound by laws that govern what such entities can do.
Washington-based U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly also pointed out that the commission was an advisory body that does not have legal authority to compel states to hand over the data.
Most state officials who oversee elections and election law experts say that voter fraud is rare in the United States.
Trump, who set up the commission by executive order on May 12, has charged without evidence that millions voted unlawfully in the November presidential election.
Republican Trump won the Electoral College, which tallies wins in states and determines the presidential winner. But he lost the popular vote to his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
"We look forward to continuing to work with state election leaders to gather information and identify opportunities to improve election integrity," the commission's vice chair Kris Kobach said in a statement after Monday's ruling.
Kobach is the secretary of state for Kansas and a high-profile advocate of tougher laws on immigration and voter identification. Civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers have said the commission could lead to new ID requirements and other measures making it harder to vote.
The panel, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, met for the first time last week. It ran headlong into controversy when Kobach asked states to turn over voter information.
The data included names, the last four digits of Social Security numbers, addresses, birth dates, political affiliation, felony convictions and voting histories.
Some states refused, and others said they needed to study whether they could provide the data.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a separate lawsuit against the commission to ensure that it follows open government laws.
"The commission’s efforts to gather personal data should not escape judicial review," EPIC's senior counsel Alan Butler said in a statement, adding the group would closely watch what the commission does next.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Andrew Hay and Grant McCool)