President Trump’s commission examining allegations of rampant voter fraud will meet in public for the first time Wednesday amid a backlash of its own making.
The panel, led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, came under fire from state officials for requesting sweeping data about voters, including voting history and Social Security numbers.
Made up of seven Republicans and five Democrats, the commission is tasked with examining and comparing state voter rolls and federal databases to identify potential cases of double voting and pinpoint weaknesses in the election system. But critics say its flawed design suggests it is a fishing expedition to justify Trump’s unsupported contention that millions of illegal voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
More than a half-dozen privacy watchdogs, good government groups and civil liberties organizations have sued the commission, alleging that it fails to comply with federal transparency laws, improperly collects and fails to properly secure voter records, among other complaints.
The meeting, to be held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House, will the first of about five gatherings over the next year, according to people familiar with its plans. While the agenda of its future meetings is yet to be determined, the panel plans to take testimony, review the data it collects from states and submit a report to the President.
“Voter integrity is the basis for our elections,” says Mark Rhodes, clerk of Wood County, West Va., and one of the Democrats on the panel. “If people don’t believe in it, why vote?”
Opponents see another agenda. For years, GOP leaders have argued for election rules to safeguard elections that make it harder for people who tend to vote Democrat–especially poor minorities–to cast a ballot. The goal of Kobach’s commission, says Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and a former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, “is to lay the groundwork for voter suppression.”
Since 2010, over 20 states have passed tighter voting restrictions. Under Kobach, 51, Kansas has been particularly aggressive. The Ivy League–educated lawyer and former Justice Department official has pushed through statutes requiring that residents prove citizenship in order to register and show a government-issued photo ID at the polls. (A conservative federal judge struck down some of those restrictions last year, finding they had deprived 18,000 Kansans of their rights.) Kobach, who recently announced a campaign for governor, even wrested prosecutorial powers from the state legislature to crack down on what he called an epidemic of illegal voting. In two years, he has convicted nine people for fraud. Most were older citizens with homes in two states who mistakenly voted in both.
Academic studies repeatedly show that election fraud is exceedingly rare. “The data show Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than commit election fraud,” says Rudy Mehrbani, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. And yet widespread fraud is received wisdom for some on the right.
Election experts say the panel’s approach is likely to yield large numbers of false positives–voters flagged for possible fraud who did nothing wrong. That’s what’s happened with an interstate voter-registration directory Kobach championed in Kansas. Known as Crosscheck, it compares voter rolls in 32 states to turn up people registered in multiple places. But the system has kinks. According to a 2017 study by researchers from Stanford, Harvard and Microsoft, it could stop 200 legitimate votes for every double vote it prevents.
Voting-rights advocates, who tend to be Democrats, fear Republican lawmakers could use its findings to purge voters or pare back ballot access. “It’s about creating a narrative that the system is broken and the laws have to be changed,” says Lorraine Minnite, who studies voting rights at Rutgers University. That’s the case Trump himself has made. After the election, he tweeted angrily when the media didn’t corroborate his claims that voter fraud was pervasive. Now he’s tasked Kobach with finding the evidence.