Trump Election Panel Hunts for Voter Fraud Evidence

Trump Election Panel Hunts for Voter Fraud Evidence
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A tweet by President Trump launched a nationwide search for something widely viewed as so fictional – a U.S. election swayed by fraudulently cast ballots – that the first meeting Wednesday of the president’s new voter fraud commission attracted mostly skepticism from experts not in the room.

From the panel’s mission, to the team Trump appointed, to the group’s research tools and resources, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity has been dismissed as an elaborate cover for Trump’s favorite myth: his assertion that the popular vote last year went to Hillary Clinton because of 3 million to 5 million illegal ballots.

“You will approach this important task with a very open mind and with no conclusions already drawn,” the president told co-chairs Vice President Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, plus 10 appointed commissioners.

“For years, claims of fraud have been used to justify unwarranted voting restrictions. There is strong reason to suspect this commission is not a legitimate attempt to study elections, but rather a tool for enabling voter suppression,” the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice said in a statement. 

Trump, surrounded by American flags, hailed the commission as objective just seconds after describing his worries that “very large numbers of people” voted illegally in November.

“This issue is very important to me because throughout the campaign and even after, people would come up to me and expressed their concerns about voter inconsistencies and irregularities, which they saw, in some cases, [as] having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states,” he said.

The president wasn’t the only person in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building eager to compile research to support a hypothesis.

Kobach, who is running for governor in Kansas, has a reputation for prosecuting people in his state for election violations. He boasted of seeing eight convictions in cases where Kansans cast more than one ballot, and he wants to cross-check federal data about non-citizens in the country and people who are deceased against state data and get to the bottom of how many people nationwide are registered to vote in more than one state (which is not illegal). 

The commission’s initial request to all 50 states for access to their public voter roll data was greeted with such skepticism outside of Washington that dozens of states refused to cooperate or limited submissions, citing state laws and privacy concerns. A few states have reported that voters in noticeable numbers are unregistering to vote in the belief they will prevent their personal data from going to the Trump commission.

In the meantime, the commission’s request is in limbo as various advocacy organizations, including the ACLU, filed at least seven lawsuits to block the information sharing. 

Kobach told reporters at the conclusion of the two-hour organizational meeting that “lazy reporting” and misinformation had stirred needless public controversy early this month.

“If the [federal] court were to rule that the commission cannot receive the voter roll data, that would be certainly a big impediment to the commission doing its work, because the voter roll data is sort of the starting point,” he said.

When asked if the commission could seek each state’s help to run certain data checks themselves using federal information, rather than aggregating 50 state voter rolls in Washington, Kobach responded: “To do a larger-scale analysis of `these 1,000 people appear to have felonies that the Justice Department tells us disqualifies them from voting in their states,’ that would be harder to do on an ad hoc basis.

“We’re crossing these bridges as we come to them,” the Kansas secretary of state said, noting that the commission is weighing whether to destroy rather than store the state voter roll information it collects at the time it completes its report.

“The goal is not to create a federal database of state voter rolls,” Kobach told reporters.

The next meeting of the panel will be in September. Following four or more public sessions, Kobach said the panel’s findings about election procedures and voting integrity will go to Trump next year in advance of the midterm elections.

The panel has been given a budget of about $500,000 and what Kobach described as a large staff, including detailees from federal departments and agencies.

Commissioners generally agreed Wednesday to explore five broad issues: accuracy of voter rolls; improper voting; voting by mail; cyber security as it impacts state and local election databases; and voter intimidation. Russia in 2016 and international interference with U.S. elections bubbled to the surface of the discussion three times, and only briefly.

Describing various anecdotal experiences with elections and in some cases their partisan points of view, commissioners took turns adding concerns to the work list Kobach presented.

Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation with a focus on election law reforms, said he was eager to study U.S. Census and Justice Department data that could show the extent of what he believes is a broader problem with illegal voting than is acknowledged by states. He said “hundreds of thousands” of people are registered to vote in multiple states, for example.

Spakovsky pointed to 1,100 cases in the Heritage database of convictions for voter fraud.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner said he hoped the commission could study polling and explanations for low voter participation, especially considering states’ innovations designed to make it easier for Americans to cast ballots in recent years. To bolster public confidence in elections and voting systems requires an understanding of voters’ perspectives, he argued.

“So many people think their votes are nothing,” he added.

Republican Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state, identified himself as a strong proponent of voter ID laws, and said he thought voters should be taught about their “duty to vote.”

Blackwell suggested those people who deny the existence of serious voter fraud are mistaken, and the risks of hacking and cyber crimes related to elections should also be confronted.

“There are real threats and real vulnerabilities. We have to operate in the real world,” he said. “We have to understand there are real threats to the integrity of the ballot box.”

Alabama probate judge Alan King, who assured his colleagues he had not seen evidence of voter fraud in his county, urged the commission to help states by focusing on additional funds states and counties need to update and replace voting machines. 

“We just can’t turn our backs and pretend that we’re not going to need a lot of money,” King said. “We have a huge challenge in this nation keeping up with voting machine technology.”

Democrat Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state, said his experiences in charge of elections persuaded him that problems with voter registrations in multiple states had more to do with mobile populations and their recordkeeping omissions than the purposeful execution of fraudulent ballots in multiple states.

Dunlap said the commission should ask states to describe their systems for what he called “chain of custody” over ballots -- from the time ballots are printed to the moment they are counted or recounted. Understanding the process with which ballots are handled, as well as voter registrations, can help allay public fears about voter fraud, he said.

On the questions of cyber security, Dunlap suggested the commission reach out to congressional investigators who are probing Russia’s interference with the 2016 election to “keep us apprised.”

Kobach did not directly respond to the suggestion, but noted the commission may need to meet in closed session, depending on the sensitivity of information federal investigators and experts may be able to share but would not want potential criminals to obtain.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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