President Trump on Thursday signed an executive order creating a commission to study voter fraud and illegal voting.
Voting rights advocates and many independent experts in election administration immediately condemned the move as a deeply troubling effort to lay the groundwork for new voting restrictions.
And a look at some of the names reported as members of the commission underscores that concern. One was described in a congressional report as making Katherine Harris, who notoriously suppressed Democratic votes in Florida to help throw the 2000 election to George W. Bush, look like “a cupcake.” Another, one of two Democrats so far named to the panel, was sued just days ago for allegedly disenfranchising disabled voters. And a third is Kris Kobach.
Trump’s order, which can be read here (scroll down) directs the new panel to study “vulnerabilities” in the election system that could lead to “fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.”
The panel also is charged with identifying measures that enhance or undermine “confidence in the integrity of the voting processes.” The inclusion of that language could allow the panel to conclude that even if fraud itself is extremely rare, strict voting policies are needed to address the perception of fraud. That’s a rhetorical strategy that backers of restrictive voting laws are increasingly using.
The commission will submit a report to the president next year.
White House officials told ABC News that the panel also will look at voter suppression, after an election in which several states had new restrictive voting laws in force. But no indication that suppression is part of the panel’s mandate appears in the order.
Vice President Mike Pence was announced as chair of the commission. Several of the other members that ABC reported have been named so far have records that don’t inspire confidence:
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the commission’s vice chair, has been perhaps the single most important elected official in spreading and defending strict voting laws in recent years. Kobach has championed a Kansas law that requires documentary proof of citizenship from people registering to vote, and has urged other states to adopt similar laws. Several pieces of that law have been blocked by federal courts.
Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, a Pence ally, led an investigation last year into a voter registration group working to register minority voters. The probe, which involved a state police raid of the group’s offices, turned up no significant wrong-doing by the group while badly hampering its ability to register voters.
As Ohio Secretary of State in 2004, Ken Blackwell ignored repeated calls for more voting machines and restricted access to voter registration. The result was all-day lines on Election Day in student- and minority-heavy areas, depressing Democratic turnout in the election’s pivotal state and playing a major role in President George W. Bush’s win. An investigation by congressional Democrats found “intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State Blackwell.”
And one of the two Democrats named to the panel, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, is grotesquely unrepresentative of his party’s current thinking on voting issues, which favors expanding access. Gardner is backing a controversial bill now before the state legislature that would restrict same-day voter registration, and has supported voter ID in the past. His office is among those saying restrictions are needed to combat the “perception” of fraud, even if such fraud doesn’t exist. Gardner was sued by the ACLU Wednesday, just a day before being announced as a member of the panel, for allegedly disenfranchising hundreds of voters, many disabled, over signature issues.
The other two announced members of the commission are Christy McCormick, a Republican commissioner on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat.
“My attitude is that if you’re not at the table, you’re on it,” Dunlop told a Maine paper.
Trump falsely claimed during the presidential campaign last year that many people were voting up to ten or fifteen times, and that large numbers of non-citizens were voting. Since the election, he has falsely said that illegal voting cost him the state of New Hampshire, as well as the popular vote.
Kobach was photographed after the election in November going in to a meeting with Trump while holding papers that appeared to mention amending the National Voter Registration Act. That’s now sparking concern that the commission may recommend weakening the 1993 law, which has made it easier for millions to register to vote. The ACLU has been seeking access to those papers, as part of its ongoing challenge to Kobach’s Kansas voter registration law.
The response from election experts to the White House announcement was near universal disdain. In a statement typical of the reaction from voting rights advocates, the ACLU’s Dale Ho called the commission “a pretext for disenfranchising Americans.”
“[T]he point is either to give the President validation for his outlandish claims and/or to provide a pretext for passing more laws to make it harder to register and to vote,” wrote Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine.
Bob Bauer, a Democratic election lawyer who co-chaired a widely respected bipartisan presidential panel on election reform in 2014, called on election administration experts to boycott Trump’s commission.
“It’s so beyond the pale — what can you say at this point?” asked Nate Persily, an election law scholar at Stanford who served as the director of the 2014 panel co-chaired by Bauer, in an interview with Talking Points Memo. “There are a lot of serious academics who have done a lot of work in this area. Let’s see if any of them staff the commission.”
And in a post on a listserv of election lawyers, Lorraine Minnite, a political science professor at Rutgers University, called for the formation of an alternative body of nonpartisan experts to disseminate accurate information about voting, in opposition to the panel’s expected approach. Minnite’s academic work has shown conclusively that voter fraud is vanishingly rare, and she has testified as an expert witness in several challenges to strict voting laws. (The listserv is off the record, but Minnite allowed The Daily Democracy to publicize her call.)
One person who it appears hasn’t yet commented on the commission is Ben Ginsberg, a top Republican election lawyer who co-chaired the 2014 panel with Bauer. Ginsberg is a partner at Jones Day, which last year served as the Trump campaign’s law firm, and a frequent commentator on election law issues for MSNBC. He didn’t immediately respond to The Daily Democracy’s request for comment.
The ACLU on Thursday afternoon filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the information the White House used in its false claims about voter fraud. The group said those claims served as the basis of Trump’s order.