President Trump and Vice President Pence have expressed no misgivings about the administration’s newly formed Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, whose first move a week ago sparked a rebellion among more than a third of states prior to the panel’s first official meeting this month.
The controversies could lead to legal and partisan showdowns over issues of privacy, data security, federalism, voting rights and how states and the federal government should effectively collaborate to protect U.S. elections and the public’s confidence.
Refusals by states to turn over voter data to the panel this week overshadowed news accounts about the ongoing federal and congressional investigations examining Russia’s interference with the 2016 election, which federal officials of both political parties believe will recur as part of the 2018 and 2020 elections.
The administration is under pressure to rethink how the commission proceeds if it wants to overcome suspicions that it’s becoming “a donkey circus,” as one commissioner put it.
“The commission has no power, except to identify best practices or procedures, and to make recommendations to eliminate vulnerabilities for [election] fraud,” Marc Lotter, spokesman for the vice president, told RealClearPolitics in defense of the panel that Pence chairs.
During a recent interview, Lotter underscored that the Pence commission asked for specific voter information that can be made public under states’ laws. He said the federal government takes a dim view of states’ refusals to produce data it would otherwise treat as publicly accessible.
“If it is publicly available data, in most states you can walk off the streets and obtain it,” he said.
Trump this week suggested some states don’t want to reveal their own vulnerabilities. “Numerous states are refusing to give information to the very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL. What are they trying to hide?” the president tweeted Saturday.
Lotter dismissed as partisan politics the much-publicized concerns expressed by some state officials and Democratically allied advocacy groups that the administration plans to build a national voter database using public voter information held by the states to justify Trump’s unsupported claims that 3 million to 5 million illegal ballots were cast in 2016, denying him the popular vote.
“They’re not out to prove or disprove anything,” Lotter said of the 15-member commission, which was established by executive order in May. The president’s order explained the commission was formed to “study the registration and voting processes used in federal elections.”
Lotter said the commission sought to “run analyses” on states’ data “to see, are there instances of voter registration in multiple states?” The administration wants to find out whether multiple registrations could be “cleaned up.”
(Voters who move from state to state and end up with more than one registration are not uncommon. Tiffany Trump, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and White House advisers Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner and Sean Spicer were found this year by various news organizations to be registered to vote in more than one state. It is illegal to cast ballots in multiple states, but not illegal to have multiple registrations in states).
“There has never been a nationwide evaluation of all the information,” Lotter said in support of the commission’s data requests.
Elections studies and the real-world experiences of some of the Pence commissioners who supervise state elections underscore a confidence that voter fraud is rare in the United States. Nevertheless, the White House does not share that confidence: “We don’t know the numbers,” Lotter said. “How do we know?”
The Pence panel is set to meet for the first time July 19 in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House. The panel’s participants — one of whom (Maryland Deputy Secretary of State Luis Borunda) resigned July 3 — are to make recommendations before the midterm elections about mitigating risks to the nation’s commitment to “one person, one vote,” Lotter said. The commission does not yet have all 15 members in place.
According to a roster updated daily by the National Association of Secretaries of State, 18 states declined as of Wednesday to provide voter data sought by Pence and commissioners, who are operating under the leadership of vice chair Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state (pictured above).
Twenty-four states agreed as of Wednesday to provide at least some of the publicly available data the Pence panel requested, in some cases following receipt of fees required for the transaction. Other states said they had not received the letter as of Wednesday, or had not yet responded. Illinois, for example, deferred its decision until after a meeting of the state’s board of elections next month.
States’ rejections of the panel’s requests, issued by both Republican and Democratic state officials, cited as their reasons states’ legal restrictions, as well as misgivings about how 10 years of personal voter data would be utilized and maintained electronically in Washington.
“I am requesting that you provide to the commission the publicly-available voter roll data,” Kobach wrote each state on June 28. If permitted by law, he said the commission wanted voters’ first, last and middle names or initials, addresses, dates of birth, political party registrations (if recorded), last four digits of Social Security numbers, voting histories for the last decade, felony convictions, military status, overseas citizen status, and any information regarding voter registrations in another state.
“The president’s commission is a waste of taxpayer money and a distraction from the real threats to the integrity of our elections today: aging voting systems and documented Russian interference in our elections,” wrote California Secretary of State Alex Padilla in his June 29 response.
Asked if the Pence commission will tackle questions of cybersecurity and Russia’s election meddling as part of U.S. election integrity, Lotter said it was “likely” because commissioners could raise those issues, even if the White House believes “our systems are secure” in terms of balloting. The Pence panel can consult specialists, even if intelligence and cyber experts were not appointed as commissioners, he said.
Padilla, a Democrat, co-chairs the National Association of Secretaries of State elections committee, which meets Saturday. In his letter denying the Pence commission the data it sought from California, Padilla scolded the president for naming Kobach to co-chair the endeavor, calling him a sponsor of “discriminatory, anti-immigrant policies, including voter suppression.”
Lotter did not challenge the notion that in selecting Kobach, the president understood he would be waving a red cape in front of Democrats and various news media tracking Trump’s assertion that a federal investigation of voter fraud in the United States was necessary.
The association of secretaries of state, representing officials who in many states are responsible for elections, will hold its annual conference this weekend in Indianapolis. The Pence commission’s work was not on the agenda as of Wednesday, but may be a topic of discussion among secretaries in private sessions, said NASS spokeswoman Kay Stimson. Kobach will not be present, she added.
Secretaries of state, individually and as a group, have reached out to federal officials in the past, inquiring whether states could tap federal databases to help improve the accuracy of state voter rolls, through Social Security Administration data (deaths), Department of Homeland Security (migrants), and the Department of Health and Human Services (citizenship). Some queries “went unanswered” by the Obama administration, Stimson said.
Ohio and Florida were among states more recently interested in learning whether federal data about those who become U.S. citizens could be used to update voter rolls, she added.
The association’s president is Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, a Republican whom Trump named to be a member of his election fraud commission. NASS has had little interaction with the Pence panel, Stimson added. Lawson recently testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as part of its Russia probe tied to last year’s presidential contest.
Kobach declined an RCP interview request. A Kansas spokeswoman said that if the secretary of state’s “letter was truly read with zero bias, this would be a non-issue.”
“It is clear that it is a request for publicly available information,” said Samantha Poetter, director of public information for Kobach’s office. “This is the type of information that [a] political party or campaign requests on a regular basis from our office.”
Kobach, known nationally for his eagerness to thwart non-citizens from casting ballots, met with the president-elect during Trump’s transition as a potential candidate to head the DHS.
Kobach endorsed Trump’s candidacy and his proposed wall along the border with Mexico in February 2016. He launched a campaign for governor in Kansas in June, and swiftly became a target of legal complaints when he promoted his federal commission work on his campaign website.
During an organizational conference call June 28, some commissioners pressed Kobach to be sure to describe the panel’s request for state data as optional rather than a demand, and to limit requested data production to what was public, according to Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s Democratic secretary of state, who told RCP he was invited in February by Kobach to join the Pence commission.
“It was a really boilerplate meeting,” Dunlap told RCP the day after the brief conference call, which Pence kicked off. “I was encouraged about it.”
But frictions between states and Washington over questions of voter fraud, a potential new national database, and the administration’s motives surfaced within hours.
As Dunlap navigated a government shutdown prompted by a budget impasse in Maine this week, he conferred with state legal advisers to formulate an official response to Kobach’s letter, which he was seeing for the first time.
“Upon review, the request is denied,” Dunlap wrote July 3.
Maine’s response hinged on the commission’s stated intention to make state voter roll data it receives public at the federal level. Only municipal and state officials can access such information in Maine by law, and any information or reports generated by the data are treated as confidential. Released to the federal government and subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act, Maine could not control the confidentiality of state voter information, Dunlap said. “It doesn’t work.”
“We never talked about creating a database,” he told RCP when asked how Kobach’s letter differed from the commission conference call he had initially described as unremarkable. “It was not part of our discussion,” he repeated.
Dunlap said he had no intention of quitting, but believed the White House and Kobach “are going to have to take a step backwards in a pretty transparent way.” Asked what that meant, he said: “Retooling the whole thing” by perhaps relying on sample sets of state data over which state officials retain control, rather than developing a national database of state voter rolls.
Dunlap predicted his elections knowledge and his experience in previous politicized thickets would prove valuable, in part because he believes well-designed examinations of states’ experiences with election vulnerabilities and procedures will uncover simple errors more than widespread and premeditated fraud.
“That’s where having someone like me on the commission really works against them,” he said. “I’m not at all concerned about my role in this. They’re not using me, or my reputation. Putting me on the commission puts a bullhorn in my hands.”