The group set to convene Wednesday to advise President Trump on “election integrity” includes the publisher of “Alien Invasion II,” a report on undocumented immigrants who mysteriously showed up on the voter rolls in Virginia.
Another member is known for scanning obituaries in his West Virginia county to make sure dead people are promptly deleted from voter lists. Another championed some of the strictest voter identification laws in the country during her days in the Indiana legislature.
And yet another warned nearly a decade ago of the “possibility for voter fraud on a scale never seen before in this country.” During his tenure as Ohio secretary of state, the full Social Security numbers of 1.2 million state voters were accidentally posted on the agency’s website.
Even before this group of 12 holds its first official meeting at the White House complex, it has sparked more controversy — and more questions about its competency — than any presidential advisory commission in memory.
Spawned by Trump’s baseless claim that illegal voting cost him the popular vote against Hillary Clinton last year, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity will gather Wednesday to chart its agenda, led by Vice President Pence and guided by a charge to shore up the confidence Americans have in voting systems.
The commission’s first public action — a request for massive amounts of voter data from the states — seems to have had the opposite effect.
The request late last month was met with stiff resistance, even from many Republican-led states, and prompted multiple lawsuits that accuse the group of breaching the privacy of tens of millions of Americans and offering no indication of what it plans to do with the data, which included home addresses, dates of birth and partial Social Security numbers.
In the wake of those concerns, the commission last week posted on its website hundreds of comments it had received about its work — almost all of them negative and some laced with profanity — and drew more flak for not redacting, in some cases, the email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers and employers of those weighing in.
On Tuesday, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund became at least the seventh party to file suit against the commission in federal court. The group alleged that the commission “was formed with the intent to discriminate against voters of color in violation of the Constitution.”
In a separate case, a judge declined to block the commission from meeting as planned Wednesday, but ruled that a challenge by at least one civil rights group could go forward into whether the voting panel was violating government transparency laws.
Members of the commission, which is billed as bipartisan, say they are undeterred.
“I think the hysterical reaction to this commission is just that: hysterical,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a Fox News commentator.
“I long ago stopped worrying about people who say mean things about me because I wrote about actual cases of voter fraud,” said von Spakovsky, adding he was bewildered by how many people seemed “scared” of an advisory commission.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), the vice chairman and driving force behind the commission, dismissed much of the criticism as “irrational hyperventilating” and said the collection of data will be integral to quantifying the extent to which voter fraud is a problem — an exercise that will inform recommendations on changes in state and federal laws over the course of the next year.
“Part of the commission’s job is to just put data on the table and say, ‘Well, here’s what we know’ — and let people draw their own conclusions about how big or small the problem is,” Kobach said. “It seems to me that’s a good thing, no matter what one’s party and what one’s perspective.”
Data collection has been put on hold pending the decision on one of the lawsuits. Kobach and other commission members said that all they are seeking is data states already make public — a point they argue has been lost.
Critics say the past actions of several of the commission’s leading members — including Kobach, who is now running for governor of Kansas — provide little comfort.
“Secretary Kobach wants permission to do surgery with a chain saw quickly on a rickety table,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School and former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division during the Obama administration. “Some of the other folks he’s got on the commission have shown themselves to be equally careless. .”
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’s Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, said her organization fears the commission will push “discriminatory” voter ID laws, “burdensome, documentary proof of citizenship requirements” and undertake other efforts that “could lead to massive purging of the voter registration rolls.”
In recent years, Kobach has become an outspoken critic of America’s voting system and claimed that voting fraud is rampant.
He has turned his perch in Kansas into a powerful platform for his ideas. Next to his desk in Topeka, which overlooks the state capitol, is an 1892 copper ballot box with a secure lock, loaned to him by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, for whom Kobach worked in 2001 as a White House Fellow.
On Kobach’s office wall, he has a framed copy of a voting law he helped craft, the 2011 “Secure and Fair Elections Act” that required citizens who registered to vote using the state voter form to provide certain proof-of-citizenship documents, such as a birth certificate or a passport. Those with incomplete voter registration applications were removed from the rolls after 90 days and had to try to re-register. In the last couple of years, he has pushed for other states to demand similar proof of citizenship.
“The reason we have to do this is there is a significant problem in Kansas and in the rest of the country of aliens getting on our voting rolls,” Kobach said.
Others on the commission who’ve been targeted by critics include von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams, a longtime crusader against alleged voter fraud by undocumented immigrants.
“Election fraud, whether it’s phony voter registration, illegal absentee ballots, vote-buying, shady recounts or old-fashioned ballot stuffing, can be found in every part of the United States,” van Spakovsky wrote with a co-author in the 2012 book, “Who’s Counting?”
He said in an interview that the commission is seeking data to build on previous studies that have shown people registered to vote in more than one state. The commission wants to go further by showing how many of those are actually voting in multiple states, he said.
In states where data requests have been rebuffed, the commission is contemplating filing public-records requests to obtain what it wants. In other instances, members said, they are willing to comply with procedures that require payment for the data. One state, Alabama, has said that would cost more than $32,000. The commission has an estimated budget of $500,000.
Van Spakovsky also suggested another target for data: lists kept by clerks in courthouses across the country of jurors, culled from voter rolls, who are dismissed because they are noncitizens.
Adams, who previously served in the voting rights section of the Justice Department and heads a foundation that produced this year’s report on the “alien invasion” in Virginia, said in a recent Fox News interview that those complaining about the commission are “flat-earthers.”
“They want to hide the truth,” he said.
Levitt said Trump’s commission stands in “pretty stark” contrast to a 2013 presidential election commission that “was designed to make bipartisan recommendations and based on careful research.” The Obama-era commission, he said, was co-chaired by “longtime exceedingly well-respected” Democratic and Republican campaign lawyers.
The Trump administration has billed its commission as bipartisan. Its current makeup includes seven Republicans and five Democrats. Pence and Kobach, both Republicans, occupy both the chairman and vice chairman slots.
The commission includes no members who live west of Kansas — meaning the nation’s most populous state, California, is not represented, nor is the rapidly growing Southwest.
The only Latino named to the commission, Maryland deputy Secretary of State Luis Borunda, a Republican, has already resigned.
The commission’s only African American member is former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, a Republican who was accused of voter suppression during his tenure by ordering county clerks not accept voter registrations on anything less than 80-pound stock paper, the thickness of a postcard.
The commission’s five Democratic members include two secretaries of state whom Kobach knows well, Bill Gardner of New Hampshire and Matthew Dunlap of Maine, who said in an interview that his inclusion remains “a little bit of a mystery to me.”
The other three Democrats are local officials in Arkansas, Alabama and West Virginia with connections to the Republican secretaries of state in their states, who in turn have relationships with Kobach.
That includes David Dunn, a former Arkansas state legislator who now runs a government relations firm and said he learned of his appointment when the White House sent out a news release announcing it.
“I think they were looking for a Southern Democrat to serve on the commission for some diversity,” Dunn said.
Dunn said he is skeptical of Trump’s claim about losing the popular vote because of illegal voting and of claims of widespread voter fraud more broadly.
But, he added: “I’m certainly open to considering what makes people feel that way.”
Mark Rhodes, the county clerk in Wood County, W.Va.,
who has pared his county’s voter rolls by combing through obituaries and death certificates, said he has not seen evidence of widespread voter fraud from his vantage point.
“I can speak for Wood County, West Virginia, and the local clerks around here that I deal with, that it’s not a concern,” Rhodes said.
Alan L. King, a probate judge in Jefferson County, Ala., insists he will not be a “rubber stamp” for the commission. King, who serves as his county’s chief election official, said he is wary of talk about widespread voter fraud.
“If this commission is going to go down that road, there needs to be hard, cold facts,” King said.
Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state, said he agreed to serve on the commission with the hope that the exercise will prove purveyors of widespread voter fraud to be wrong. That includes Trump claims about millions of illegal votes, he said.
“I would be astonished to see anything that comes close to that, even one-tenth of that, even one-twentieth of that,” Dunlap said. “My premise I work from is that most of the public is very law-abiding.”
Spencer S. Hsu and Christopher Ingraham contributed to this report.