President Trump's Advisory Commission on Election Integrity holds its first public meeting on Wednesday under what seems to be an ever-expanding cloud.
The panel has faced credibility problems right from the start, and the concerns have only grown:
- The commission was proposed by Trump earlier this year to investigate his belief that as many as 5 million people voted illegally last November — an allegation dismissed as unfounded by the vast majority of the nation's election officials and experts.
- When the commission was set up in May, it was described as "bipartisan." But the two leaders — Vice President Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — are both Republicans.
- Subsequent appointments have also raised eyebrows. Some on the 12-member panel have little or no election experience — such as Maryland Deputy Secretary of State Luis Borunda, who resigned earlier this month citing a heavy workload. Four of the seven Republicans on the panel — Kobach, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and former Justice Department attorneys J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky — are among the nation's leading advocates for tighter voting laws to prevent fraud, something they claim is pervasive.
- The panel's first action was to ask all 50 states to send in detailed voter registration records — including things such as names, dates of birth and voting history — so the commission could study the extent of voter fraud. Some states refused to comply. Many others said they would comply reluctantly and provide limited data.
"They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from," said Mississippi's Republican secretary of state, Delbert Hosemann, in response to the panel's request for voter data.
Echoing other Democrats and voting rights advocates, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said the commission has been set up to justify new voting restrictions — such as strict photo ID requirements — that could impose barriers to legitimate voters, especially minorities.
"California's participating would only serve to legitimize the false and already debunked claims of massive voter fraud made by the president, the vice president and Mr. Kobach," said Padilla.
In a recent interview with NPR, Kobach dismissed concerns that the commission is trying to impose stricter voting restrictions by changing federal laws.
"I know that most states prefer to keep the control of elections at the state level, and so federal legislation hasn't been warmly received by the states," he said. "The commission may see that there's a particular problem and may recommend to the states, 'Hey, you individual states might want to consider adopting this bill or that bill.' That's possible, but again, I don't know what the commission will decide."
However, as part of a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union to Kobach's efforts to impose proof-of-citizenship requirements on Kansas voters, it was revealed that he hoped to revise a federal voting law to allow such requirements, as first reported by the Huffington Post.
The commission's first meeting comes as more details of Russian attempts to attack parts of the nation's elections system during the 2016 campaign have emerged.
Padilla, the California secretary of state, accused the Trump administration of attempting to "discredit or ignore" the intelligence community's assessment about the Russian government's role in those efforts while focusing on issues such as voter fraud.
In fact, the panel's leaders have said they plan to look at any problems with the nation's voting system that undermine public confidence in the integrity of federal elections. In his letter to states requesting the voter data, Kobach also asked for recommendations on how to prevent voter intimidation or disenfranchisement and on how to help "state and local election administrators with regard to information technology security and vulnerabilities."
Still, many election officials are skeptical that the White House commission can offer much new to the debate over how to improve elections, something state and local officials have been talking about and working on for years.
In response to Kobach's request for voter data and advice, Colorado's Republican secretary of state, Wayne Williams, sent a nine-page letter that begins: "Elections are working well in Colorado."
Williams said voter fraud in his state is rare but suggested that the federal government encourage more states to participate in a multistate effort already underway to clean up voter registration lists, called the Electronic Registration Information Center. He also said federal agencies should share with states any information they have related to hacking attempts and other threats to their election systems. Many election officials say they're far more concerned about election cybersecurity and aging voting equipment than fraud.
How much the commission will dwell on these topics is unknown. The agenda for the first public meeting is sparse — members will be introduced and are then scheduled to talk for about an hour about what topics they would like the commission to address.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump's commission to look into voter fraud and other election problems will hold its first public meeting today. Already, this panel has come under fire. Let's remember, it was formed by President Trump to look into his widely discredited claim that millions of people voted illegally in last year's election. Then states balked at the commission's first request that they send in detailed voter registration information.
We're joined by NPR's Pam Fessler, who's come by our studios before covering this meeting today. Hey, Pam.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So this panel, to put it bluntly, is off to a pretty bad start. But - which makes me wonder, are they going to be able to do what they say they want to do here, which is instill public confidence in voting?
FESSLER: It's going to be really, really hard. As you said, this panel started off with a lot of problems, a lot of credibility problems. And it only seems to have gotten worse. First, the commission was set up on what a lot of Democrats and Republican election officials say is a false premise, which is that voter fraud's widespread. They say it exists, but it's rare.
Second, the commission was supposed to be bipartisan. But both leaders are two Republicans, Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
GREENE: Doesn't sound exactly bipartisan.
FESSLER: Not exactly. And the rest of the 12-member panel is predominantly Republican. And it also includes some leading advocates for tough voter laws, such as strict proof of citizenship and ID requirements. And that has Democrats and a lot of liberal voter advocacy groups pretty worried that, you know, what is this commission really up to?
And are they really just set up to just justify some of these new restrictions on voters?
GREENE: Has the commission responded to the suggestion that they're trying to restrict votes?
FESSLER: They say that's not their intention, that they are open, that they're just going to follow the facts where they lead. Their purpose is to look at voting problems, whatever they are and figure out how to fix them so that we can improve public confidence in elections. Vice Chair Kobach says that the reason he asked for all the state voter data - registration data - is he wants to look at the lists to see if there's any evidence of voter fraud or just problems with voter registration lists.
Now, of course, a lot of people are skeptical that that is going to work. That said, also the commission, besides asking for state voter registration data, they've also asked for recommendations on how to address a whole range of issues, whether it's voter intimidation and also things like computer security.
GREENE: Well, and, Pam Fessler, that raises a central question here - right? - about competing priorities. Like, President Trump suggested that there was all this fraud he wanted this commission to look into. But once a commission starts looking into voting, aren't there things that they've really been, you know, that these people have really been interested in, which includes computer security issues?
FESSLER: Right. I mean, definitely. I mean, by far, most state and local election officials that I talked to, the thing that they're really worried about is the potential for hacking into their election system. Obviously, we had evidence that Russia tried to do that last year. And by all indications, they're going to try and do it again in the future.
And there's a lot of fear that this commission is really diverting attention and resources away from that problem, trying to fix that problem. Another thing election officials are worried about is old voting equipment. A lot of it's aging. They have no money to replace it. And that could also be another big problem.
GREENE: All right, so this commission is going to be meeting for the first time in public today. NPR's Pam Fessler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.