Two watchdog groups filed a lawsuit Monday to force three different federal agencies to make public the internal documents and communications related to a commission President Donald Trump convened to investigate voter fraud.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in New York by the Brennan Center for Justice and Protect Democracy Project against the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget. The lawsuit came after all three agencies did not respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the commission.
The suit is notable because the commission, which formally met for the first time in July, has said little about its methodology. It has not posted public comments it has received since mid-July and has said little about who will staff it and how it will work with other federal agencies. Marc Lotter, a spokesman for Vice President Mike Pence, the commission’s chair, told ProPublica the panel planned to run voter data collected from all 50 states against federal databases. The Washington Times reported in June the commission will compare voter roll data against a DHS database of non-citizens.
After the panel’s July 19 meeting, Kobach told reporters the size of the commission’s staff would be “substantial,” and indicated there were people in other agencies in the federal government who were working on it.
“Not only do you have the full-time staff here, you have people who are detailed to work for the commission from other agencies,” he told reporters.
Many observers were also alarmed when the Department of Justice sent out a letter to 44 states at the end of June asking them to explain their compliance with voter purge procedures required by federal law. The letter was sent the same day the commission sent out a letter to all 50 states asking them to turn over voter information, though a DOJ official said in July the timing was a coincidence.
In the suit, the plaintiffs say they are seeking records from OMB because agencies are required to receive approval from the office before beginning a broad effort to collect information. The commission does not appear to have sought approval from OMB before issuing a broad request for voter information, and has argued in separate litigation that it did not have to because it is not a federal agency.
Critics are concerned the commission will lay the groundwork for more restrictive voting policies, which they note many of the commissioners have a history of pushing.
“This administration has a troubling pattern of keeping public information from the public — a pattern that is continuing with this commission,” Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said in a statement. “The government’s obligation to share this information is especially important when there are so many reasons to be skeptical of this commission. When the public is not able to oversee the work of a presidential panel like this, there is a risk of abuse, which could negatively impact voting rights across the country.”
The commission has been hit with a slew of lawsuits since it was announced in May, alleging that it was not complying with federal privacy and transparency requirements. The commission has survived many of the initial challenges after judges declined to block the commission from collecting voter data or meeting in July. The panel’s next meeting is set for September.