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Voter fraud commission starts amid controversy

Voter fraud commission starts amid controversy
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President Trump’s voter fraud commission met for the first time Wednesday to carve out a path forward amid a firestorm of controversy.

The commissioners and Trump spent part of the meeting defending the panel’s very reason for existing, saying the country needs an investigation to uncover the “full truth” about the extent of illegal voting.

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Trump, who created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity after months of claiming without presenting evidence that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election and cost him the popular vote, joined with Vice President Pence in framing the commission as a bipartisan and nonpolitical endeavor.

While Trump did not repeat his earlier accusations of widespread fraud, he warned about voter fraud and called on commissioners to discover the “full truth.”

“Every time voter fraud occurs, it cancels out the vote of a lawful citizen and undermines democracy,” he said at the meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.  

“Can’t let that happen,” Trump said. “Any form of illegal or fraudulent voting, whether by noncitizens or the deceased, and any form of voter suppression or intimidation must be stopped.”

Trump’s opening remarks alluded to the bipartisan resistance the commission has faced from the beginning amid concerns about its true aims. Democrats have argued that Trump is fishing for proof to justify his popular vote loss — and for evidence to justify voter suppression efforts.

It’s an accusation that remained on the minds of many of the commission members. Pence, who chairs the commission, promised that the group has “no preconceived notion or preordained results.” And Hans von Spakovsky, a commission member who has long warned about widespread voter fraud, chastised the commission’s critics in his introductory remarks.

“The scurrilous charges that have been made are reprehensible and a tactic frankly to avoid a substantive debate on important issues and to prevent the research, inquiry and study that is necessary to identify the problems in our election process, determine what the solutions are therefore to ensure we have the best election and best democratic system in the world,” he said.

The biggest stumbling block for the committee so far remains widespread opposition to the commission’s request for publicly available voter roll information — including names, voting histories and, most controversially, the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

Commission vice chairman Kris Kobach has admitted that he does not know of a state that releases that Social Security information, but said he wanted to make a broad request and let states decide based on their laws.

Officials in 14 states and the District of Columbia have refused to comply with the commission’s request. Election officials in dozens of other states, including a number of Republican-held states, signaled their concerns in statements last month. Shortly after the request went out, Mississippi’s Republican secretary of state invited the commission to “jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Many of those officials accused Kobach, Kansas’s GOP secretary of state, of attempting to clamp down on voting rights.

Trump used his remarks at the commission’s first meeting to question whether states that oppose the request have an ulterior motive.

“One has to wonder, what are they worried about?” Trump said. “I ask the vice president and the commission, what are they worried about? There’s something. There always is.”

The commission’s introductory meeting saw few fireworks, with the 12 members — seven Republicans and five Democrats — mainly considering potential avenues to explore.

Kobach opened the meeting by proposing five topics to explore: the accuracy of voter rolls, fraudulent voting, voting by mail, voter intimidation and, potentially, cybersecurity.

When Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson (R) brought up the idea of reviewing election data security, Kobach said that discussing election cybersecurity would force the commission into private session.

“Maybe that shouldn’t deter us,” Kobach said.

Alabama Probate Judge Alan King, a Democrat, added that he was surprised that people could be registered to vote in more than one state and asked to discuss a recommendation that people can only be registered in one state. It’s currently legal to be registered in multiple states, as long as a voter only casts ballots in one.  

King later called for the commission to find a way to safely incorporate new technology amid concerns about old voting machines.

Kobach said the commission aims to hold at least four more public meetings, with the next meeting coming before Oct. 1.

“We may have more meetings than that if necessary, but I think four is a starting target,” he said.

The Democratic National Committee responded to the meeting by holding a press conference for its own “Commission to Protect American Democracy from the Trump Administration.” Members of the group blasted Trump’s commission as a partisan trick meant to limit voting rights.

“We will be watching your commission. We will be making sure your commission stays on task, because there are integrity issues with our election process,” Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellDem: Trump blocking memo shows he's 'not interested in transparency' Recy Taylor's granddaughter to attend State of the Union as Dem's guest After rough year, Facebook does damage control in DC MORE (D-Ala.) said. 

“Voter fraud is not the problem. It truly is voter suppression.”

Democratic counter-programming isn’t the only problem Trump’s commission faces. The new group has spent the past few weeks defending itself in court as opponents attempt to dismantle the commission on the grounds that it is flouting transparency laws and disregarding privacy concerns.

Commission opponents complain about the commission’s failure to put out a public notice or disclose details of the June 28 conference call meeting where members were told about the plan to collect voter roll data.

The commission has argued in court that it’s not evading federal laws because it’s not a federal agency.

Privacy concerns in one of the lawsuits prompted the commission to voluntarily ask states to stop sending data until a federal court ruled whether its privacy protections were sufficient.

Kobach told reporters that he doesn’t want to keep a federal database of the voting information and is investigating ways to destroy the information after the commission completes its work. Still, Kobach conceded that the ruling would play a large role in deciding whether the commission can do its job.

“If the court were to rule that the commission cannot receive the voter roll data, that would be, certainly, a very big impediment to the commission doing its work. The voter roll data is the starting point — if you don’t have that, it’s almost impossible to assess [claims of fraud],” he said.