Com­mis­sion on voter fraud swiftly mired in con­tro­versy

To crit­ics, panel picked by pres­i­dent is meant to make vot­ing harder

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JOHN WAG­NER john.wag­ner@wash­post.com

As Pres­i­dent Trump’s voter fraud com­mis­sion pre­pared to con­vene in New Hamp­shire this week, it al­ready faced ques­tions about its se­ri­ous­ness of pur­pose and whether it was a hope­lessly bi­ased en­deavor. Then things got worse. An email sur­faced in which the Her­itage Foun­da­tion’s Hans von Spakovsky, one of the com­mis­sion’s most con­ser­va­tive mem­bers, lamented that Trump was ap­point­ing Democrats and “main­stream” Repub­li­cans to the bi­par­ti­san panel.

Its vice chair­man, Kansas Sec­re­tary of State Kris Kobach (R), drew re­bukes from vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates — and a cou­ple of fel­low com­mis­sion­ers — for an ar­ti­cle he wrote for the hard-right Bre­it­bart News web­site. The ar­ti­cle as­serted, with­out proof, that voter fraud had likely changed the re­sult in New Hamp­shire’s most re­cent U.S. Senate race.

A third Repub­li­can on the panel, J. Chris­tian Adams of Vir­ginia, later feuded on Twit­ter with a jour­nal­ist, ques­tion­ing whether she had lied about her aca­demic cre­den­tials. She had not.

The fresh con­tro­ver­sies an­gered some Demo­cratic com­mis­sion­ers al­ready feel­ing heat from their party for be­ing on Trump’s com­mis­sion, which crit­ics say is re­ally aimed at mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to vote. Even some Repub­li­cans fol­low­ing the com­mis­sion and sym­pa­thetic to its mis­sion said it may now face an even tougher job of sell­ing any rec­om­men­da­tions it crafts.

“Let’s just say the ex­e­cu­tion has been less than per­fect,” said Barry Bennett, a cam­paign ad­viser to Trump last year. The on­go­ing “fusses” could make it more dif­fi­cult for the com­mis­sion to make its case, Bennett said.

The Pres­i­den­tial Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion on Elec­tion In­tegrity was formed in re­sponse to Trump’s base­less claim that mil­lions of il­le­gally cast bal­lots cost him the pop­u­lar vote against Hil­lary Clin­ton last year. Lead­ing mem­bers — in­clud­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, who serves nom­i­nally as chair­man — have nev­er­the­less in­sisted they launched their work with no pre­con­ceived no­tions and would fol­low the facts wher­ever they might lead.

By the end of a seven-hour meet­ing on Tues­day, some Demo­cratic mem­bers of the panel were openly ques­tion­ing that propo­si­tion, say­ing they had wit­nessed a one-sided pa­rade of tes­ti­mony by con­ser­va­tive an­a­lysts that over­stated the ev­i­dence of vot­ing fraud.

“I don’t think we’re go­ing in a pro­duc­tive di­rec­tion right now,” said Matthew Dun­lap, Maine’s sec­re­tary of state and one of five Democrats on the 12-mem­ber com­mis­sion. “The pan­els were dom­i­nated by dark­ness and fore­bod­ing.”

Dun­lap said in an in­ter­view that he was highly of­fended by von Spakovsky’s email, which was re­leased later in the day by an ad­vo­cacy group that had un­earthed it through a pub­lic-records re­quest. The email, which was even­tu­ally for­warded to At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, was writ­ten in Fe­bru­ary, as Trump was pre­par­ing to make ap­point­ments to the panel.

“There isn’t a sin­gle Demo­cratic of­fi­cial that will do any­thing other than ob­struct any in­ves­ti­ga­tion of voter fraud,” von Spakovsky wrote in the email, re­lay­ing that he had just learned that Trump in­tended to make the panel bi­par­ti­san. “That de­ci­sion alone shows how lit­tle the [White House] un­der­stands about this is­sue.”

Von Spakovsky added that “if they are pick­ing main­stream Repub­li­can of­fi­cials and/or aca­demics to man this com­mis­sion it will be an ab­ject fail­ure.”

Dun­lap said von Spakovsky was try­ing to keep peo­ple like him from serv­ing, adding that he is well-re­spected by leg­is­la­tors in both par­ties in Maine.

“It re­ally taints Mr. Spakovsky’s par­tic­i­pa­tion on the com­mis­sion,” Dun­lap said. “If he had any dig­nity, he’d step down.”

Through a spokes­woman, von Spakovsky said he “no plans what­so­ever” to step down, had writ­ten the email to “pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als” and had no idea it would be for­warded to Ses­sions or become pub­lic. The copy of the email re­leased by the Jus­tice Depart­ment redacted the name of the orig­i­nal re­cip­i­ent.

Adams — who has con­ducted years of re­search on vot­ing by nonci­t­i­zens, in­clud­ing in Vir­ginia — said that the wide­spread op­po­si­tion to the com­mis­sion’s work by Democrats was in ef­fect “prov­ing Hans right.”

“Some peo­ple don’t want to get to the truth about vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in our elec­tions,” Adams said of the panel, which he also said in­cludes some open-minded Democrats.

For his part, Adams said that he con­sid­ered the meet­ing in New Hamp­shire to be “fan­tas­tic” and that it showed there are ar­eas where Repub­li­cans and Democrats can “work to­gether to fix vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in the elec­tion sys­tem.”

Democrats are not alone in crit­i­ciz­ing the panel.

Michael Steele, a for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee chair­man, said he has not been a fan of the com­mis­sion from the out­set. Its at­tempts to ad­dress voter fraud amount to “tak­ing a bull­dozer to a prob­lem that you could prob­a­bly use a shovel on,” he said.

“There’s no rea­son to go down this road and cre­ate all these po­lit­i­cal firestorms,” Steele said.

Kobach’s Bre­it­bart piece ig­nited one of the firestorms, and the most dra­matic mo­ment of this past week’s meet­ing came when New Hamp­shire Sec­re­tary of State Bill Gard­ner, a Demo­crat on the com­mis­sion, con­fronted Kobach about the col­umn.

“You ques­tioned whether our elec­tion as we have recorded it is real and valid,” Gard­ner said to Kobach, “and it is real and valid.”

He added that Kobach’s ar­ti­cle was not help­ful for a com­mis­sion try­ing to con­vince the pub­lic that it had reached no preordained con­clu­sions.

“I hope we all learn from this,” Gard­ner said. He also re­layed that he was re­sist­ing calls from his all-Demo­cratic con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion to re­sign from the com­mis­sion, say­ing he con­sid­ered it his civic duty to con­tinue serv­ing.

Kobach, who has ag­gres­sively pur­sued cases of voter fraud in Kansas, ar­gued in his Bre­it­bart piece that the U.S. Senate race in New Hamp­shire, which was de­cided by 1,017 votes, “likely” turned on il­le­gally cast bal­lots. He pointed to state data show­ing that 5,313 peo­ple with out-of­s­tate driver’s li­censes reg­is­tered to vote on Elec­tion Day but did not ap­ply later for New Hamp­shire li­censes.

Vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates say many of those ap­pear to be col­lege stu­dents, who are al­lowed to vote un­der state law.

“Very somberly, he waves the bloody shirt of voter fraud, and it’s just peo­ple com­ply­ing with the law,” Dun­lap said of Kobach. “How does that help his cause?”

Alan King, an­other Demo­crat on the com­mis­sion, said he had mis­giv­ings as well about the di­rec­tion in which his Repub­li­can col­leagues are mov­ing.

“If we’re just go­ing to pa­rade peo­ple through to say what they want them to say, this isn’t a good ap­proach,” said King, a pro­bate judge in Alabama. “This na­tion de­serves a le­git­i­mate com­mis­sion that gives a fair shake to the ev­i­dence. If you don’t have that, it’s a to­tal waste of ev­ery­one’s time.”

Nei­ther Pence’s of­fice nor Kobach re­sponded to mul­ti­ple re­quests for in­ter­views.

The com­mis­sion had al­ready sparked sev­eral con­tro­ver­sies, in­clud­ing with a sweep­ing re­quest to states for voter roll in­for­ma­tion that even some Repub­li­can sec­re­taries of state said was overly broad. A fed­eral judge also re­cently chas­tised the com­mis­sion for not shar­ing pub­lic doc­u­ments ahead of its or­ga­ni­za­tional meet­ing.

Sev­eral Repub­li­cans in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle sug­gested that Trump would have been bet­ter off task­ing the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee with look­ing into voter fraud rather than try­ing to set up a bi­par­ti­san com­mis­sion op­er­at­ing un­der gov­ern­ment rules.

Do­ing that would al­low the work to go for­ward with­out con­stant ques­tions about the com­mis­sion’s bal­ance, Bennett said.

“They could still pro­duce a re­port that could be dev­as­tat­ing and re­move all these po­lit­i­cal fusses,” Bennett said.

The ex­ec­u­tive or­der es­tab­lish­ing the com­mis­sion says it will is­sue a re­port to Trump iden­ti­fy­ing laws, poli­cies and prac­tices that both en­hance and de­tract from pub­lic con­fi­dence in vot­ing, and iden­tify weak­nesses in vot­ing sys­tems and prac­tices that can lead to fraud­u­lent vot­ing.

The rec­om­men­da­tions would be strictly ad­vi­sory and would be de­pen­dent on of­fi­cials at the state, fed­eral or lo­cal lev­els tak­ing ac­tion to im­ple­ment them.

Re­gard­less of the com­mis­sion’s ul­ti­mate fate, some crit­ics fear that it is mak­ing an im­pact by trav­el­ing the coun­try to hold meet­ings and make lo­cal head­lines.

Kris­ten Clarke, pres­i­dent of the Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law — one of sev­eral groups that have taken le­gal ac­tion against the com­mis­sion — said its trav­els could “plant the seeds for laws and poli­cies” to make vot­ing harder.

“In my view, part of the goal here is to take this pa­rade on the road . . . and use the com­mis­sion to pro­mote this false nar­ra­tive,” Clarke said.

HOLLY RAMER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

For­mer Ohio sec­re­tary of state Ken Black­well (R), left, Kansas Sec­re­tary of State Kris Kobach (R) and New Hamp­shire Sec­re­tary of State Bill Gard­ner (D) serve on Pres­i­dent Trump’s voter-fraud panel.

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