A federal judge ordered President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission to turn over internal documents to one of its Democratic commissioners who had accused the panel of withholding crucial information from him.
The ruling is a victory for Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who filed a lawsuit in November against the commission that Trump appointed him to. Dunlap has received no information about the commission’s activities since its last public meeting on Sept. 12 and said he had been excluded from communications in which the commission’s work was discussed, including the planning for that September meeting. There are currently 11 members on the commission, four of which are Democrats.
There are seven Republicans and four Democrats on the commission. Dunlap and Democrat Alan King have openly expressed frustration over a lack of information on what the panel is working on. Republicans deny they’re excluding Democrats, though a document in another lawsuit shows Republican panelists have communicated privately.
Justice Department lawyers, representing the commission in court, argued Dunlap wasn’t entitled to all commission documents but only those that were prepared for the entire panel.
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, rebuked the Justice Department’s position in her Friday opinion and said the commission must turn documents over to Dunlap.
“Plaintiff has a right, as a commissioner, to ‘fully participate’ in the proceedings of the Commission. In the Court’s view, his assertion that he will be unable to fully participate without the information contained in relevant documents that the Commission has not shared with the public has merit,” she wrote in her 24-page opinion. “He has a right to access documents that the Commission is considering relying on in the course of developing its final recommendations.”
Kollar-Kotelly declined to give a “line-by-line” order of the documents the commission must turn over to Dunlap but provided two examples of information he should have received. One was a draft of a controversial letter sent to all 50 states from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the Republican vice chair of the commission, requesting that election officials hand over voter information. Before he sent that letter, Kobach communicated privately with Republicans Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams, two future commissioners on the probe who had not yet been appointed.
Kollar-Kotelly also wrote that Dunlap should have had more input in the planning for the Sept. 12 meeting, which was planned by Kobach and New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (D). She also said Dunlap should have more of an opportunity to plan the panel’s next meeting, though it remains unclear when that will be.
“This ruling is a clear vindication of what I have fought for from the start: the right to participate in the important work of this commission and hopefully achieve an outcome that benefits the American people,” Dunlap said in a statement released through American Oversight, the group representing him in the litigation. “I have always been confident that we are on the right side of the law, but unfortunately, through legal arguments and bombastic public statements, the commission’s leadership denigrated straightforward efforts to fulfill my responsibilities as a member of the commission. This decision sets the commission on a path of redemption, and my hope is that I and the other commissioners will finally be able to participate fully.”
The White House and Kobach did not respond to a request for comment late Friday evening.
Dunlap’s lawsuit was harshly attacked by Kobach, who called it “baseless and paranoid.” Von Spakovsky and Adams called on Dunlap to resign.
The commission has met only twice publicly so far, and its goals and activities remain unclear. A document produced in another suit against the commission shows officials have communicated with the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration, but it is unclear what was discussed. Officials have indicated the panel may want to compare voter roll data against federal databases of non-citizens to try to identify people on the voter rolls, a plan election experts have raised questions about.
The commission, formally called the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, has been closely watched since its creation in May. Critics say it is an attempt to substantiate Trump’s claim of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election, despite several studies and investigations that have shown it is not a widespread issue. Kobach, Adams and von Spakovsky have pushed the suggestion that voter fraud is a widespread problem and have supported restrictive voting policies.
Dunlap also asked Kollar-Kotelly to block the commission from issuing a final report unless he was fully included in the process of writing that. On Friday, Kollar-Kotelly declined that request, saying it would be premature.
The commission had offered to let Dunlap inspect the documents he was entitled to but not take notes or make copies. Kollar-Kotelly said this was “not a reasonable offer” and Dunlap should be able to make copies and take notes if he wants.