WASHINGTON — President Trump directed Wednesday his new “voter integrity” commission to home in on perceived “fraud” in the U.S. election system while insisting the panel has "no conclusions already drawn” about what its final recommendations will be.
“It’s about the concern of so many Americans that improper voting is taking place and canceling out the votes of lawful American citizens,” Trump said in opening the commission’s first meeting.
“This issue is very important to me because, throughout the campaign, people would come up to me and express their concerns about voter inconsistencies,” Trump said. He vowed a “very transparent process … with no conclusions already drawn.”
Trump formed the commission after stating that up to 3 million to 5 million people voted fraudulently in the 2016 election, with no evidence to support it. While critics say the panel was created to justify Trump’s claim, civil and voting rights groups have more serious concerns about the supporting role the commission could play in new voting restrictions in GOP-controlled states.
Trump cited “very large numbers of people in certain states” who may have voted fraudulently, resurrecting a claim from the campaign that remains unproven. He made no mention of potential foreign interference as a critical concern even though U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia tried to penetrate voting systems in dozens of states.
In recent weeks, several groups have filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the commission among other things, in an attempt to dismantle the panel. The Democratic National Committee also formed its own commission to serve as a watchdog. Hans von Spakovsky, a Heritage Foundation scholar on the panel, condemned “scurrilous charges” that have been made against the commission, including personal attacks against him. Several panel members repeated that they have no preconceived ideas about what their recommendations will be.
A Trojan horse?
“It’s just a Trojan horse for this longstanding agenda,” said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union voting rights project. “Their belief is there are too many people voting,” he said.
The commission has been a lightening rod of controversy since its formation. Most importantly, there is no major study showing the incidence of voting fraud is statistically significant. On the contrary, numerous studies have found the incidence to be low.
"There’s a huge disconnect between the vice president’s repeated insistence that they have 'no preconceived notions' and several commissioners’ insistence that they know voter fraud exists," said David Becker, director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
Further, the panel is co-chaired by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Kobach is “a key architect behind many of the nation’s anti-voter and anti-immigration policies,” including strict photo ID requirements in Kansas requiring a birth certificate or passport to register. Since then, one of every seven Kansans who’ve tried to register has been blocked, according to the ACLU.
Kobach is also running for governor. Normally, commissions are comprised of equal numbers of individuals from the two parties who are not on the ballot to insulate against political motivation. Further, the panel lacks experts on voting data and its request for voter data came before it had even consulted such experts. Voting technology experts say it was unclear why it was requesting the information and what it intends to do with it.
Kobach said the panel’s mission is to identify non-U.S. citizens, individuals who may be double registered and felons on the voting rolls. He also cited “fraudulent voting,” cyber security and voter intimidation as issue areas. He also claimed there may be millions of people who may be double registered in the United States. Von Spakovsky cited research showing 1,000's of potentially "illegal" votes and claimed fraud can make a difference in close elections that the U.S. tends to have.
Becker rejected that argument. "This is over a period of many years, with literally a billion votes being cast. We’re talking about something so rare it’s difficult to understand why it warrants federal taxpayers’ dollars being spent on it and aggregation of sensitive and private voter information," he said.
The commission’s work is “a starting point” that will allow states to identify voters who “can be contacted and removed from the rolls,” said Kobach, who cited his work in Kansas that “demonstrates how successful” such efforts can be.
Just one member, Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state and a Democrat on the panel, expressed subtle skepticism about the president’s fraud claim, saying it’s important to “reassure people there are no goblins” in the system. In his opening remarks, he stressed that the government does not belong to any elected official. “This is their government. It’s not ours, it belongs to them,” he said of the American people.
Dozens of Democratic and Republican state election officials have refused to comply with all or part of the commission’s request to provider voter information. The commission put the request on hold as it faces legal challenges. Without the data, voting technology experts say it’s impossible for the commission to produce an accurate report that doesn't inflate the incidence of voting irregularities.
Previously, Trump said states that refuse to comply with the data request may be trying to cover up fraud. He stopped short of repeating that charge on Wednesday: “Any state that does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they are worried about… there’s something, there always is,” said Trump.
Outside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where the commission met, a coalition of civil rights and voting groups protested. During a panel discussion on Tuesday, top Democrats on key committees say they are concerned the commission could be used as a “tool for voter suppression.”
Inside, former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell seemed to indicate tighter voting rules may be among his recommendations. “Citizens should be expected to overcome minimum obstacles when voting,” he said.
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