The Death of Trump’s “Voter Fraud” Commission

Donald Trump and Kris Kobach, the head of the ill-fated "voter fraud" commission, November 2016

How Donald Trump’s unsupported claims of voter fraud become the “shit show” of an ill fated Administration commission

Andrew Gumbel of The Guardian reports on the demise of Donald Trump’s commission on US elections, a legacy of Trump’s unsupported claims — fed by anger that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in November 2016 — that “millions” of ballots were cast illegally:

Donald Trump’s quixotic year-long quest to prove the 2016 election was marred by millions of fraudulent votes has become, in the words of White House insiders, a “shit show” that appears unlikely to fare much better now the effort is shifting from a widely loathed presidential commission to the Department of Homeland Security.

Voting rights activists rejoiced this week when the White House announced it was abandoning the eight-month-old Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a body run by some of the country’s most notorious advocates of voter suppression.

Such activists remained concerned the administration could still find ways to constrict ballot access for new citizens and other minority groups through the DHS immigration enforcement arm.

It is not clear, however, that the DHS has either the resources or the will to conduct a wide-scale investigation into voter eligibility when it is fully stretched implementing the administration’s broader goal of rounding up and deporting as many undocumented immigrants as possible.

The DHS itself said it was committed to continuing to work with states on improving cybersecurity around election machinery and voter databases, but made a point of distancing itself from Trump’s point man on election matters, the Kansas secretary of state and outgoing vice-chair of the presidential commission, Kris Kobach.

“Kris Kobach will not be advising us on this matter,” the DHS said in an apparent refutation of Kobach’s own public statements.

Kobach told one interviewer he expected the DHS to match state voter rolls to its own records on migrant non-citizens in an effort to weed out fraudulent voters – something Kobach has advocated for many years, despite being told repeatedly that the DHS database of immigrant enrollees in federal benefits programs is wholly unsuited to assessing voter eligibility and does not track citizenship at all.

Kobach also argued that the DHS could move more efficiently than the presidential commission and that Democrats and others who opposed the commission’s work and filed lawsuits to force greater transparency had scored an own goal.

Anyone on the left needs to realize that by throwing food in the air they just lost a seat at the table,” he told Politico.

Kobach’s position, however, appeared to be a lonely one. Even the president’s own staff members have privately expressed exasperation with the way he ran the commission. Experts on federal bureaucracy pointed out that the DHS would, if anything, have a greater obligation to transparency than the commission did under the federal Privacy Act – not to mention congressional oversight and opportunities for public comment.

“With the commission, Kobach effectively jumped on a live grenade that he himself pulled the pin on. Most people don’t want to be the second person to jump on the same grenade,” Justin Levitt, an Obama-era justice department official and voting rights expert, told the Guardian.

“Having seen the disaster that is the Kris Kobach show, it’s not clear DHS is going to be eager to follow him.”

From Trump’s Pride to Confusion to Lawsuits

Trump’s commission ran into trouble from the start, as a broad-ranging request for voter information – including details of military service that are usually considered confidential for security reasons, and even party affiliation – hit a wall of bipartisan resistance from state election officials and a warning from a former DHS chief that the data, if collected, could pose a cybersecurity risk.

Critics pointed out that Trump’s assertion of widespread fraud appeared to be based on his own wounded pride at having lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by close to 3 million votes, not on actual evidence. And they feared that the true purpose of the commission was to wage partisan warfare against Democratic voters – especially minority voters – by making it more difficult for them to register and cast a ballot.

A revealing email written by one of Kobach’s allies on the commission expressed opposition to the inclusion of any Democrats or even “mainstream Republicans” because they would guarantee the failure of its mission.

The commission met just twice, giving away little or nothing of its agenda, the documentation it was relying on or even basic information like the time and venue of meetings. Civil rights and voting rights groups filed close to a dozen lawsuits to try to shed greater light on what Kobach and his colleagues were planning.

Then, in November, one of the commission’s own members, Maine’s Democratic elections chief, Matt Dunlap, filed his own suit after trying and failing to obtain basic information. An initial court ruling handed down just before Christmas ruled in Dunlap’s favour, a development that appears to have precipitated the White House’s decision to close the commission down completely.

Dunlap was one of just a handful of Democrats that were widely seen as token figures on a commission over which Kobach maintained tight control from the start. Voting rights activists pieced together what they guessed to be his agenda from a variety of sources – including court filings, a document photographed in Kobach’s hand following a meeting with the then president-elect Trump in December 2016, and Kobach’s occasional column for Breitbart News.

Much of it was familiar from Kobach’s efforts in Kansas, which in many cases have been challenged in court and some struck down.

Such efforts include introducing a “citizenship requirement” for voter registration despite a dearth of evidence that non-citizen voting is a problem; nationalizing a multi-state registration crosscheck that Kobach has championed, despite evidence that it flags legitimate voters hundreds of times more often than it does fraudulent double voters; watering down the 1993 National Voter Registration Act to make it easier to knock inactive voters off the rolls; and lobbying the DHS to use its immigrant benefits database to seek out non-citizen voters.

Of that wishlist, only the last item appears to have survived the disbanding of the commission.

Meanwhile, the fight is continuing over the commission’s documentation, since Dunlap is pursuing his lawsuit despite strong opposition from the Trump administration.

“The value of obtaining the documents is that we will finally have clarity as to what the premise of this commission was,” Dunlap told the Guardian. “It will give the American people something to look out for.”

On Friday, however, the Justice Department told Dunlap it saw no obligation to hand over anything now the commission has been dissolved. In response, Dunlap accused the justice department of “arrogance and contempt for the rule of law”.

Since the commission’s documentation was now being forwarded to the DHS, public scrutiny was more important than ever, he argued.

“The actions taken by the administration going forward will have an immense impact on every American voter,” he said. “The government cannot cloak major undertakings in changes to public policy in total secrecy without any public scrutiny or accountability.”

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