WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence tried to reassure Americans that their voter fraud commission’s work would be fair and bipartisan during the panel’s first official meeting on Wednesday.
Trump, who has claimed 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally in last year’s presidential election, touted the bipartisan makeup of the panel (there are five Democrats and seven Republicans) and said looking into elections wasn’t a partisan issue, but an “American” issue.
“You will approach this important task with a very open mind and with no conclusions already drawn,” Trump told commission members. “You will fairly and objectively follow the facts wherever they may lead.”
The meeting offered a chance for Trump, Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), the commission’s vice chair, to reassure Americans after widespread resistance to the panel’s request that all 50 states hand over detailed voter information. While the commission laid out about a dozen topics related to election integrity it intended to pursue, it did little to allay concerns it would be a partisan effort to stir up unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
Despite his bipartisan message, Trump jabbed Democratic and Republican state election officials who refused to turn over voter data to the commission, citing privacy concerns or state laws.
“I’m pleased that more than 30 states have already agreed to share the information with the commission and the other states,” Trump said. “That information will be forthcoming. If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they’re worried about. And I asked the vice president, I asked the commission: What are they worried about? There’s something. There always is.”
Trump didn’t explicitly repeat his claim that millions voted illegally, costing him the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, but said it was something people talked to him about before and after the campaign.
“In some cases,” he said, “having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states.”
Pence, the commission’s chair, repeated that the panel had no preconceived notions about what it would find.
Kobach, a candidate for Kansas governor, proposed the commission consider topics that include voter roll accuracy, non-citizen voting, felon voting, cybersecurity, and voter intimidation. Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R), said he wanted to look into elections decided by slim margins. Hans von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commission member and Justice Department lawyer now at the Heritage Foundation, said he wanted to collect data on voting in more than one state, and examine obstacles to states trying to access Department of Homeland Security data on non-citizens. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (D), said he wanted to better understand the lack of confidence in elections.
Russian interference in the 2016 election, which U.S. intelligence agencies agree occurred, only received a passing mention.
Obstacles to voting and voting disenfranchisement weren’t discussed until the end of the meeting, when Christy McCormick, a Republican on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said she wanted to study it.
“The other thing I think we should look at is who’s being disenfranchised in our country? We hear that people are being disenfranchised,” McCormick said. “I’d like to look at who’s being prevented from voting or not voting for whatever reason.”
The panel is facing multiple lawsuits, including one alleging it hadn’t undergone a required federal review before seeking information from states. The panel hasn’t said how it will address privacy concerns, store the data it obtains from states, or whether it was concerned about reports that Americans were deregistering out of concern their voter information would be turned over.
Kobach told reporters after the meeting he wasn’t interested in creating a federal voter database. He said the committee was exploring ways to delete voter data after the commission’s work concludes.
Critics have assailed the commission because investigations and scholarly research have shown voter fraud is not a widespread problem. They say the commission is simply a pretext for Kobach, who has pushed restrictive voting policies in Kansas and exaggerated cases of voter fraud, and Trump to build a foundation for further voter suppression efforts, which several commission members have supported in the past.
The commission’s Wednesday meeting did little to dispel those concerns.
“In today’s meeting, members promoted false and unsubstantiated claims of vote fraud while failing to provide meaningful focus on real problems that threaten our democracy such as ongoing voting discrimination, voter suppression and Russia’s interference with our elections,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is suing the commission, said in a statement. “The discussion among Commission members makes clear that they are laying the groundwork to promote dangerous policies and laws that will make it more difficult for Americans to register and to vote. This Commission represents a dark moment in American democracy and makes clear this administration’s hostility to advancing voting rights.”
In Lafayette Square outside the White House, protesters demonstrated against the commission. Democrats held a press conference to denounce the panel before it met.
Justin Levitt, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, noted that many of the commissioners seemed interested in the National Voter Registration Act, or NVRA, a 1993 law requiring certain state agencies to provide people an opportunity to register to vote.
“A lot of lip service to bipartisanship, but very little in practice,” Levitt said in an email. “I think it sounds like several commissioners have a lot of thoughts about the NVRA, and I think it sounds like they’re going to pursue those thoughts in a way tethered to what the commissioners believe in their gut ‘increases confidence,’ without careful attention to either costs or facts.”