One morning in June last year, just before 3 a.m., Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach emailed White House officials with an editing suggestion for a draft letter they were preparing on behalf of President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission. In addition to requesting a boatload of voter information, the letter asked state election officials to answer questions about evidence of voter fraud and to offer recommendations for preventing voter disenfranchisement and intimidation.
Kobach, the effective head of the commission, took issue with the order of the questions. The Republican didn’t want the inquiry about voter intimidation to come before the inquiry about voter fraud, because voter fraud was what the commission was really interested in.
“I don’t think voter intimidation should be listed before voter fraud. That is a secondary or tertiary concern of the commission,” Kobach wrote. White House officials appear to have heeded Kobach’s advice and put the question about voter fraud first in the letter it sent out that day.
The email was among thousands of documents publicly released last week by the watchdog group American Oversight and Democratic commission member Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state. The controversial panel was abruptly disbanded in January. These emails provide the most in-depth look to date at its work, which was hidden from both the public and the Democrats who served on the commission.
Taken together, the documents show how the White House and Republican commission members sought to bolster the false narrative that voter fraud is a widespread problem in the U.S., despite no evidence that’s true.
“They wanted to talk about voter fraud and they didn’t want people to know what it was they were actually working on,” Dunlap, who sued for the emails, said in an interview with HuffPost.
Get The Story Straight
In November 2017, White House officials had already produced a draft outline of an ultimately never-published report that contained no specific examples of voter fraud. But the emails show Kobach’s willingness to rely on blatantly problematic studies to claim there was evidence of widespread voter fraud.
In another early morning exchange in September last year, White House officials alerted Kobach to claims of voter fraud in New Hampshire. Trump contended that people had been bused in from out of state to vote in the 2016 election. The White House offered Kobach data that allegedly supported that hypothesis: Months after the election, the vast majority of the 6,540 people who had registered on Election Day with out-of-state driver’s licenses had yet to obtain in-state licenses or register cars in New Hampshire.
Later that day, Kobach used the information as the basis for a wildly misleading op-ed on the conservative news site Breitbart in which he said he had “proof” that illegal out-of-state voters could have swung the elections in New Hampshire. Several people, including members of the commission, criticized Kobach for failing to mention that New Hampshire permitted a range of people living in the state to vote who might not ever seek in-state driver’s licenses ― people like college students, doctors completing their residency and military personnel stationed there.
Bad Data, Bad Conclusions
Before the 12 commissioners on the voter fraud committee even held their first meeting, Kobach expressed interest in a study claiming to show that 5.7 million people had voted illegally in the 2016 election.
Kobach emailed White House officials that they needed to have James Agresti, the author of that study, present it to the commission. Political science experts have widely debunked the study, saying it makes incorrect assumptions based on unreliable source data.
Asked about the newly released emails, Lorraine Minnite, a professor at Rutgers University and author of The Myth of Voter Fraud, told HuffPost that she was stunned that Kobach could continue to believe voter fraud is widespread.
“Maybe the strategy is just to create so much uncertainty because it’s harder to have to prove that something didn’t happen than it is to prove it did happen,” she said.
It’s Not Just Pedantics
Even small details that might shape public perception didn’t escape the interest of conservative members of the commission.
Like Kobach, J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department official, wanted to be careful about how the panel phrased its requests to state election officials. Even though Adams wasn’t yet formally appointed to the commission, he was allowed to edit that letter last June and advised removal of the phrase “voter suppression.” The phrase, he said, is not specifically used in U.S. election law.
“A stylistic note. There is no such thing as ‘voter suppression,’” Adams wrote to White House officials, adding that “there is no statue [sic] mentioning the term ‘voter suppression.’”
But the real issue for Adams was that “the foes of the Commission, over the course of years, have adopted the term ‘voter suppression’ to characterize a wide range of procedures and laws with which they disagree ― both constitutional and unconstitutional.” He pointed to strict voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement statutes.
The letter that was ultimately sent used the phrase “voter intimidation” instead.
Sasha Samberg-Champion, a former senior appellate attorney in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said that while Adams was technically correct “in the most pedantic way,” the phrase “voter suppression” is used by many to describe a range of activities that make it more difficult to vote. He pointed to the Justice Department’s own handbook for prosecuting election offenses that uses the term.
“That he is spending his time policing the use of the term ‘voter suppression’ is really revealing of his general mind-set,” Samberg-Champion told HuffPost. “Of course he emphasizes that nothing bars ‘voter suppression’ per se — he doesn’t see his mission as making it easier for people to vote.”
Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, where Adams is president, said there was nothing controversial about Adams’ email. He said Adams had objected to a “propagandized term” that blends together legal and illegal voting restrictions.
Left Wing Need Not Apply
At the inaugural meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (as it was officially called) in July 2017, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence said the panel’s work would be bipartisan. But Republican commission member Christy McCormick had sent an email the previous month suggesting that she was specifically looking to hire someone conservative for an expert staff job. On June 23, McCormick wrote to White House officials recommending a Justice Department statistician for work on the commission and assured them that she’d had conversations with him when she worked at Justice “that made me confident he is conservative (and Christian, too).”
Dunlap, the Democratic commission member, said the newly released emails show the panel was willing to look at data selectively to reach a pre-ordained conclusion.
“It was intellectually dishonest from the standpoint that I don’t think they really cared what the data said. If they saw data that agreed with them, that was unimpeachable. If there was data that they didn’t agree with, then they put it aside and ignored it,” Dunlap said. “In this case, I think they’re more or less starting with a result, then trying to backfill it with things that would support that thesis.”