Trump Election Commission, Already Under Fire, Holds First Meeting

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President Trump with Kris Kobach, left, and Vice President Mike Pence during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times

A White House commission opened a contentious inquiry into voter fraud on Wednesday with a string of assertions that corruption has sapped citizens’ faith in election results, and a promise by President Trump to thwart some states’ refusal to cooperate with the inquiry.

Democratic critics denounced the investigation even as the president spoke, accusing Republicans of deliberately undermining that faith based on nonexistent evidence to create a pretext for measures to suppress opposition votes.

In remarks to his Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, Mr. Trump cast the panel’s work as a nonpartisan commitment to “upholding the ballot box and the principle of one citizen, one vote.” He pledged that its work would be open to inspection and would “fairly and objectively follow the facts wherever they may lead.”

But he also made his own views clear, alluding to his widely derided charge that his three-million-vote loss in the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in November’s election was entirely due to fraud.

“During the campaign and after, people would come up to me and express their concerns about voter inconsistencies and irregularities,” he said. “In some cases having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states.”Mr. Trump offered no evidence to back those reports, and election officials in all 50 states have reported few or no illegal ballots cast in November. Academic studies and other investigations have repeatedly concluded that election fraud is minuscule, and that misrepresentation at the ballot box, the kind of fraud most often cited as a problem, is almost nonexistent.

The commission has met fierce resistance from voting-rights advocates ever since Mr. Trump created it in May. Many state election officials joined the outcry this summer after being asked to provide data on all 200 million registered voters to the panel for analysis.

The former Democratic secretary of state in Missouri, Jason Kander, took aim in a news conference on Wednesday at Republican claims that voter fraud is pervasive and that Democrats oppose reining it in. In fact, he argued, such claims are a charade meant to scare voters into supporting restrictions on the ballot.

“This is not really a policy difference between the two parties,” he said, but “a political strategy for them that’s no different from where they run their TV ads, or where they send mailers, or whose doors they knock on. That’s what voter suppression is about for them.”

At the meeting Wednesday, some of the 12 commissioners offered ambitious plans for using data from both state and federal sources to scour the nation for what they have long called a hidden threat — undiscovered noncitizens, felons, people who vote in more than one state and other malefactors.

The panel’s vice chairman and day-to-day overseer, the Republican secretary of state in Kansas, Kris Kobach, told the group that he had uncovered 128 cases of noncitizens who registered or tried to register in Kansas elections, but that the true number could be as great as 18,000.

With access to data nationwide, he said, “this commission will have the ability to find answers to questions that have never been fully answered before” about the extent of illegal voting.

The panel’s critics were contemptuous, noting that Mr. Kobach’s own far-reaching antifraud campaign had secured one conviction of a voting noncitizen since 2011 — of a Peruvian who registered before completing the naturalization process — in a state with 1.8 million registered voters. Over all, he has obtained nine voter fraud convictions since 2011, all but one for voting in two states.

The Trump commission is the fourth blue-ribbon inquiry in the last 17 years into what went wrong in a general election and how to remedy those problems. But beyond that, it bears no resemblance to its predecessors.

For one thing, the commission, which is formally headed by Vice President Mike Pence, began public life saddled with at least seven lawsuits challenging its conduct, its transparency and even its reason for being. Two more complaints have been filed with federal agencies against two of its 12 members.

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Voting at an elementary school in Raleigh, N.C., on Nov. 8. President Trump has claimed that illegally cast ballots robbed him of a popular vote victory in the 2016 election. CreditJeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

For another, a broad range of experts and ordinary citizens already has written off its legitimacy, noting that it is led by and filled with some of the nation’s most zealous proponents of the notion that fraud is a huge threat to democracy.

Some commissioners say the criticism of the commission has been unfair. They say that they have open minds or that they will not sign on to any conclusions that are predetermined.

“We are disappointed with those who choose to condemn the commission even before it has met and certainly before its work product is known,” the president of one conservative advocacy group active on election issues, Harvey Tettlebaum of the Lawyers Democracy Fund, said in an email this week. And conservatives say there is now so much concern about the integrity of elections that the public demands more safeguards against fraud.

“It’s fatally flawed from the design,” said Dale Ho, the director of the voting rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “The commission didn’t arise out of concerns about access to the ballot or error in tabulation by voting machines. It emerged out of Trump’s tweet that he won the popular vote. When you know that and the personnel on the commission, you don’t need to know anything else.”

The Trump commission has been plagued from the start by missteps. An early telephone conference led to complaints that the panelists had violated federal open-meeting requirements. Wednesday’s meeting in a secure federal building was made available to the public only via internet video, stretching rules that require open attendance. A federal court declined on Tuesday to issue an emergency order requiring in-person access to the session. The research staff, said to be based in Mr. Pence’s warren of offices, appears to have bypassed the network of election experts that aided past inquiries.

Election officials nationwide bristled last month when Mr. Kobach asked them to provide public data on all 200 million registered voters, including partial Social Security numbers, addresses, military statuses, political party registrations and felony records. The apparent aim was to compare the state rolls to weed out suspected double voters, and to match them with other databases to uncover noncitizens and other illegal voters.

Some experts argued that matching data cobbled from states’ incompatible databases could be hugely expensive and was unlikely to produce any accurate results. Others were puzzled that some of the data was being collected at all; voters’ political affiliations, for example, have no obvious value in a fraud study.

“If you’re going to be accused of partisanship and voter suppression,” said Nathaniel Persily, an elections expert at Stanford Law School, “one thing you might want to do is not ask the states which voters are Democrats and which ones are Republicans.”

Privacy advocates quickly filed suit, arguing that federal law expressly bars government agencies from collecting voter information (whether the commission legally is an agency is one issue in the battle). Critics warned that so much data, if leaked or otherwise released, could lead to identity theft and targeting of members of the armed services. Citizens in some states hustled to remove their names from voter rolls before Washington received them — 3,938 in Colorado alone as of Friday.

Mr. Kobach later suggested that those registrants were noncitizens and other illegal voters hoping to escape detection by the commission.

Critics said their privacy fears were confirmed last week when the commission posted on its website 112 pages of emailed citizen comments, many virulently critical, complete with the authors’ names, addresses and other identifying data.

Critics say the panel’s direction is clear given the presence of many of the nation’s most prominent advocates for tougher voting restrictions. One, J. Christian Adams, runs an Indiana-based advocacy group, the Public Interest Legal Foundation, that wages legal battles to purge voter rolls and has made claims of illegal voting by noncitizens in Virginia that election officials and others say are spurious. Another advocate listed as a director of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, Hans von Spakovsky, advocates more restrictive voting laws as a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Yet another, Ken Blackwell, has lent credence to Mr. Trump’s claims of a stolen popular-vote victory, as has Mr. Kobach. Accusations of poor management and Mr. Blackwell’s resistance to carrying out federal election mandates as Ohio’s secretary of state in the mid-2000s led independent evaluators to label the state’s election system “a poster child for reform.”

Accusations that the panel is stacked are at the center of an A.C.L.U. lawsuit filed last week that claims violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Among other requirements, the law mandates that commissions like Mr. Trump’s be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented” and that “the advice and recommendations of the advisory committee will not be inappropriately influenced by the appointing authority.”

Given Mr. Trump’s claims of fraud and the plurality of antifraud crusaders, “It’s hard to believe that a commission structured this way doesn’t already know what it wants to do,” Justin Levitt, a voting rights official in the Obama administration Justice Department who is now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said in an interview.

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