What's the Real Goal of Trump's Voter-Fraud Commission?

A conversation with Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, one of three Democrats advising the president on “election integrity”

A sign advertising the voter-fraud commission outside of its first meeting
A sign outside of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building room where the commission's first meeting was held (Andrew Harnik / AP)

The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity had its first official meeting last week, launching its agenda amid widespread controversy about Vice Chair Kris Kobach’s request for all 50 states’ individual voter data, and while facing seven federal lawsuits related to that request.

Although the stated mission of the group, as outlined in President Trump’s May executive order, is to “study the registration and voting processes used in federal elections,” the public outcry against the commission has come from fear that it would use overblown charges of voter fraud to encourage or even create widespread voter-suppression programs. The first meeting went roughly the way detractors expected it would: Voter fraud was the center of discussion among the most prominent attendees, though several state elections officials there expressed concern about less sensational issues, like voting equipment and automatic registration. (There is no proof of widespread in-person voter fraud or noncitizen voting.)

Among those state officials was Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, one of three Democrats in a 12-member body that otherwise includes a brain trust of conservative voter-fraud crusaders. I spoke to Dunlap, who in the past has said that Trump’s claims of rampant fraud are a ploy to “make it harder for people to vote,” about his reasons for joining the commission and about what he suspects will be the group’s true agenda moving forward. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Vann R. Newkirk II: What are your goals for your work with the commission?

Matthew Dunlap: It’s simple: This commission should be about the sovereign right of a citizen to exercise the franchise of self-governance. Everything else falls into place after that.

Newkirk: Where does the idea of voter fraud fall within that goal?

Dunlap: One of the things I tried to convey in the first meeting was, they were talking about this “coiled serpent” of people being registered to vote in more than one place. But that’s not against the law and is usually not the fault of the voter. It’s because they’ve moved and the administrators haven’t updated their voter files. It’s not because somebody’s trying to do anything wrong, but those people have been described as this great threat or tremendous risk.

Newkirk: And the members of this commission are the ones creating that narrative.

Dunlap: Some of the people who are opposed rather vehemently to the very existence of this commission say that I should resign, because being a respected elections official and a Democrat only lends legitimacy to what many people are regarding as a sham to increase suppression and to disenfranchise voters.

Well, that’s arguable. I think you have to give it a shot first. If you’re not there saying the things that I’m saying, then the only things they’re talking about are how to stop voter fraud—without really trying to define what that means.

I, for one, don’t believe for a second that we’re going to find 3 million to 5 million illegally cast votes, as the president claims. My goals and hopes for this are that we can actually answer some of the lingering questions; put voters first; and, if there are opportunities to improve the process, we’ll do it with the voter in mind and not the elections administrators.

Newkirk: So you think that collecting more data, as Kobach has requested of states, could ease concerns about voter fraud and allow you to pursue the questions you want to pursue?

Dunlap: It depends on what data you’re looking at. This is one of the first rules of research. Know what you’re looking for.

We had our now-infamous organizational conference call. That’s where the idea came up to ask for the voter data and start looking at this interstate voter-registration issue. Nobody expected the backlash that we got, but I had my “spider-sense” tingling. I said, “Well, you want to be a little careful with what you’re asking for and how you’re asking for it.” Don’t demand it, ask for it. And only ask for what’s legally and publicly available pursuant to those states’ laws.

Newkirk: With the commission going forward, how do you think you can represent the interests of voters?

Dunlap: Now that we’ve had our first meeting, I’ve gotten a flavor of where everybody else is coming from. For the next meeting, I’m going to be a bit better prepared, and bring some material on the things that we’ve seen and done in Maine.

A similar commission in Maine, led by Republicans, came out with a report that said the amount of additional security that a voter ID law would provide would be completely and overwhelmingly offset by the number of people who would be disenfranchised because they didn’t have access to identity documents. And that commission recommended against it. I’d like to bring that to this commission.

Newkirk: What other issues are on your radar?

Dunlap: The week before the 2016 election, there were notices that were sent to college students on a couple of campuses in Maine saying that if you were from out-of-state and you registered to vote in Maine, you would lose your financial-aid package. That’s complete bullshit, but it was meant as a voter-intimidation move. Those are the things that we should be talking about. That’s voter suppression.

For the commission’s focus on “fraud,” say somebody moved from Lincolnville to Old Town [in Maine], and they voted absentee in Lincolnville to cover their bases before they got their new apartment. And as they’re registering their new truck in Old Town, they get handed all kinds of documents, including a voter-registration card and a ballot application. They fill it all out and get a ballot with different names, and they vote—they don’t necessarily realize they’re voting twice. Is that voter fraud? Not really. We need to sit and think about those things, but instead we’re talking about “illegal aliens” coming here to vote, which is not what people come here to do. They come here to work.

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