The White House voting commission’s first in-person meeting did little to reassure critics who fear the panel is being used to lay the groundwork for new restrictions on voting.
And an appearance by President Donald Trump, who again railed against voter fraud, will have added to those concerns.
At Wednesday’s meeting at Washington D.C.’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building, commissioners mulled ways to root out ineligible voters and suggested giving prosecutors more resources to target “voter crimes.” Protecting and expanding access for all eligible voters was largely an after-thought. And the idea of investigating foreign attacks on U.S. voting systems appeared to have been outright rejected.
“Every time voter fraud occurs it cancels out the vote of a lawful citizen and undermines democracy,” Trump told commissioners. “We can’t let that happen.”
The panel was formed after Trump falsely claimed that millions of illegal votes had cost him a victory in the popular vote count. Asked by NBC after the meeting whether Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote (she did, by 2.8 million votes), Kobach responded: “We may never know.”
Trump also lashed out at the many states that have said they won’t cooperate with a request from the commission—now on hold pending a legal challenge—for personal voter data, including social security numbers and birth dates.
“If any state does not want to share that information, one has to wonder: What are they worried about?” Trump said. “There’s something, there always is.”
Still, Trump said that over 30 states had handed over some voter data, though many have only given information that’s publicly available.
Critics of the commission said the sit-down had vindicated their concerns.
“Today’s first meeting of Trump’s fraud election commission confirmed what we already knew—it was created to make it harder for eligible citizens to register and vote and to indulge the President’s outrageous lie that millions voted illegally in last year’s election,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, in a statement. “A commission made up of figures with long histories championing voter suppression policies once again repeated debunked conspiracy theories about massive voter fraud.”
There were small signs that the weeks of harsh criticism by voting advocates and independent experts have had an impact. After the request for data sparked widespread privacy concerns—including reports that some voters have voluntarily re-registered out of fear that their information could be made public—Kobach aimed to offer reassurances that voter data wouldn’t be kept confidential. And the commission’s leaders several times pledged that the process would be open and transparent, and that participants had drawn no pre-conceived conclusions.
Commissioner Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state, raised the issue of probing Russian cyberattacks on U.S. voting systems. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last month that the commission would examine the topic.
But it was ultimately agreed that the panel would rely on other federal investigations into the hacking, including that being done by the Senate Intelligence committee.
Instead, many commissioners seemed more interested in devising new ways to catch the small number of people who register or vote illegally.
Commissioner Hans von Spakovsky, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said election officials should have access to various sources of information kept by the federal government on non-citizens and felons to help them remove ineligible voters from the rolls.
“There are all these sources of federal data that nothing is being done about,” said von Spakovsky, a leader of the moment to stoke fear over illegal voting.
Kobach said after the commission was announced that he wants access to a Department of Homeland Security database. But there are legal restrictions on its use for voting, and DHS has warned in the past that it may not be reliable.
Commissioner Christy McCormick, who is also a Republican appointee to the Election Assistance Commission, said she personally had witnessed “irregularities” at the polls, but didn’t elaborate. A spokesman for the White House commission didn’t respond to the Daily Democracy’s request for more information.
Several times, commissioners appeared unfamiliar with basic facts about election administration.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who openly argued at several points against measures to expand voting access, claimed that the Florida 2000 election fiasco was attributable to the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which made registering to vote easier. Gardner said the law led unregistered voters to show up at the polls, causing confusion. In fact, the problems were largely the result of poorly designed ballots in some counties and a deeply flawed purge of the rolls that disenfranchised around 12,000 eligible voters.
Commissioner Alan King, an election official in Jefferson County, Alabama, admitted that until he joined the commission, he didn’t know that some voters who have moved from one state to another end up registered in both—a common problem that’s well-known to election administrators.
Otherwise, King played a useful role, highlighting the reality that many voting machines are old and outdated, and urging Congress to fund new ones.
“If people can’t vote because the machines don’t work, we’ve got a massive, massive problem,” King said. “We’ve got to have the funds”
But other commissioners showed little interest in the issue. Toward the end of the meeting, Kobach summed up the discussion by laying out a list of topics, sometimes overlapping , for the commission to focus on going forward:
• improving the accuracy of voter rolls by identifying felons, non-citizens, and people who have moved or died
• stopping fraudulent and improper voting
• voting by mail
• cyber-security regarding state voter databases
• voter intimidation
• finding out how many elections have been decided by a small number of votes, in order to underline that illegal voting can determine elections
• double voting
• low voter participation and low voter confidence in the process
• Automatic Voter Registration, “pros and cons”
• increasing resources to investigate and prosecute election crimes