In a long overdue reversal, on Wednesday the Trump administration announced that it had disbanded its ill-conceived Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. For us in the voting rights community, it was of course a moment to celebrate.
For the past year, we’ve been fighting the supposed “anti-fraud” commission at every step, filing public records requests so its work couldn’t be done in secret, conducting studies which debunked the commission’s bogus claims, advising public officials on the commission’s perverse goals, and filing lawsuits at the state and federal level to halt the illegal handover of private voter information to a commission charged with chasing the president’s fantastical and factless accusations of voter fraud.
As the president of the Brennan Center recently said, “This commission started as a tragedy and ended as a farce.”
But we know the fight isn’t over. First, in the White House statement announcing the commission’s closure, the president said he requested that the Department of Homeland Security pick up where the commission left off. And then the now-defunct commission’s vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, told a Kansas newspaper that moving their efforts to DHS was “a tactical shift by the president who remains very committed to finding the scope of voter fraud.”
To us, it’s no surprise they want to continue chasing after myths of voter fraud. After all, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE did not hide his true intentions for this commission: to “find something” to corroborate his false claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election.
What’s more, the commission was stacked with voter suppression enthusiasts who have long supported draconian voter ID laws. Now, one of those enthusiasts, Kobach, says he will serve as an “outside adviser” to DHS in their effort to continue the commission’s work.
Moving these efforts to DHS is an inappropriate use of a federal agency meant to protect the homeland. DHS should remain focused on bolstering the security of our elections and preventing foreign actors from interfering in our democracy, rather than investing resources in proving something we know to be false — that widespread voter fraud exists. It’s a fruitless diversion.
And it won’t be without consequence. While we don’t exactly know how the administration will shift its efforts to DHS (the Department of Justice has represented that the commission will not share states’ voter data with DHS, and DHS officials have reportedly denied that the agency has current plans to pursue voter fraud allegations), the ongoing rhetoric about fraud and "rigged" election systems erodes public faith in our democracy and our institutions. It also opens the door to policies that are harmful and destructive to voters.
One fear is that this could be the beginning of an effort to use DHS’ immigration databases to match against voter registration lists to try and purge individuals from the voter rolls. As we, and our allies, have shown time and again, such checks are not only prone to errors and likely to disenfranchise eligible citizens, they are based on wholly inaccurate beliefs about the prevalence of non-citizen voting. Another is that DHS will use its enforcement authority to target individuals alleged to have violated election laws, which would surely deter many from participating in our democracy.
In shifting their voter suppression efforts to DHS, the administration aims to side-step the legal obstacles that prevented the commission from successfully collecting sensitive personally identifying information of millions of voters. And while they may believe they can continue to run a non-transparent process, DHS is still subject to the Freedom of Information Act. That’s why we’re continuing our legal efforts, in the agencies and the courts, to expose this administration’s efforts to squander taxpayer money and weaken our democracy by intimidating vulnerable communities for its own political ends.
The commission’s legacy is marked by chaos in its ranks and wasting resources on a futile search for fraud. Those sentiments could continue to this next phase. Ongoing work in the same vein as the now-defunct commission has the potential to imperil the privacy and security of state voter data while diverting attention and funding away from the real and pressing challenges our elections face.
The closure of the commission was long overdue, but we’ll continue our work to ensure the American people learn how DHS, the Department of Justice, and other federal agencies may have been involved in the commission’s wrongheaded approach and plan to continue its failed campaign. And we’ll also attempt to sort through the wreckage of the commission’s efforts to understand how taxpayer resources might continue to be used to further the president’s reckless agenda. It’s appropriate to celebrate the commission’s demise, but the fight for transparency and for our democracy continues.
Rudy Mehrbani is a Spitzer fellow and senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.