Trump's Voter-Fraud Commission Has Its First Meeting

The Kris Kobach-led effort faces at least seven federal lawsuits and claims of voter suppression as it moves to set its agenda.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Getting served with seven different lawsuits is probably a bad way to start any job. But that’s exactly what the members of President Trump’s  Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity faced Wednesday, when the commission met in person for the first time.

The latest of these lawsuits comes from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, alleging among other things that with Trump’s creation of the commission by executive order in May, he “appointed a commission stacked with biased members to undertake an investigation into unfounded allegations of voter fraud.” The lawsuit also states that “the work of the Commission as described by its co-chairs are grounded on the false premise that Black and Latino voters are more likely to perpetrate voter fraud.”

The LDF lawsuit finds in the new commission a veritable rogues gallery of voter suppression. The first defendant named is Trump himself, who has touted controversial—and false—claims of millions of fraudulent votes in the 2016 election. But much of the plaintiffs’ ire is directed towards vice chair Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State and the de facto leader of the commission. In his position in Kansas, Kobach has launched a one-of-a-kind effort to track down illegal noncitizen voters, an aggressive campaign that has challenged hundreds of votes and brought to court dozens of campaigns but has only secured one such conviction so far.

In addition to Kobach, the lawsuit identifies other members of the commission as part of a conservative voter-suppression brain trust. There’s J. Christian Adams, a former DOJ official who’s been a prolific proponent of wild theories about voter fraud. There’s Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio Secretary of State involved with multiple voter fraud organizations who himself has claimed that “more than a million noncitizens may have voted in November.” And then there’s Hans von Spakovsky, a former U.S. Election Assistance Commission official who has long chased the specter of voter fraud and has railed against the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, or “moter-voter,” a law designed to expand voter registration efforts in driver’s licenses offices.

The other six lawsuits facing that interconnected network of voter-fraud largely echo the claims of the LDF, including its objection to a recent request from Kobach to each state for extensive amounts of public and private voter data. The Electronic Privacy Information Center’s July 3 lawsuit alleges that, if fulfilled, the request and the commission’s shoddy data practices would amount to a massive breach of privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union lodged a complaint that commission chair Mike Pence and Kobach broke federal transparency laws in the commission’s early actions. Four other lawsuits largely echo these claims.

The slew of lawsuits is only the latest of a series of controversies that have surrounded the commission. Kobach’s voter-data request was famously met with at least partial dismissal by most states, highlighted by Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s invitation for the commission to “go jump in the Gulf.” Even Kobach’s own state of Kansas—of which he is the chief elections official—announced that it would not comply fully with the request for sensitive information, and the commission has had to freeze its request pending further proceedings in the EPIC lawsuit. In a move to make its actions more transparent, the commission also released public comments about its data request, which published contact information and the names of several concerned private citizens.

Additionally, high-ranking Democratic Representatives Elijah Cummings, John Conyers, Bennie Thompson, and Robert Brady released a joint letter on Tuesday blasting the commission for its lack of transparency, questionable authority, and security concerns, and demanding the removal of Kobach due to “several conflicts of interest.” Hours later, over 70 legislators signed a companion letter also criticizing privacy concerns.

Against that tide of opposition, Kobach has done little to counter claims that his project is little more than a naked suppression operation against people of color. While Kobach has claimed that his commission will have little sway over or interest in creating sweeping new elections laws, emails made public in the ACLU lawsuit show that he has urged the amendment of the “motor-voter” law to require proof of citizenship in order to register to vote.

Kobach’s fellow commissioners are even more extreme. The conservative American Civil Rights Union (not to be confused with the ACLU), a think tank associated with at least three commissioners, has also blasted motor-voter, stating that “since the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), the institutional Left has worked steadily to gain control and compromise our voting process with little benefit to voters.” The Public Interest Legal Foundation, another organization associated with multiple commissioners, has released reports comparing noncitizens to actual space aliens and warning of vast conspiracies in Virginia to put thousands of noncitizens on voter rolls.

Based on the nature of this corpus of claims of voter fraud—which have often used bad or simply nonexistent data to challenge legitimate voters—it seems almost a given that the Kobach-led commission will either directly pursue similar efforts at a national level or will encourage states to do so. In the proceedings of the first meeting, Kobach denied that charge, stating that one of the commission’s goals was to “conduct research that has never been conducted before.”

The meeting  served mostly as a way to air out opening statements from commissioners and set the future agenda. Commissioners officially included things like elections margins, lack of confidence in elections, automatic voter registration, and online voter registration in their list of concerns. There were also some mentions of potential “foreign interference in our elections,” and a strong focus by elections officials present on updating voting machines and technology.

Kobach and the highest-profile members of the commission, however, kept a sharp focus on fraud. “There are recurring indications that individuals are being registered to vote even if they check the box on the registration forms that they are not a citizen,” said Adams.

Von Spakovsky echoed that claim, saying that he’d identified “almost 1,100 proven cases of voter fraud.” He also was one of the few commissioners to actually remark on what he called “unfair and unjust” criticism. “Members of this commission including me have already been subject to vicious and defamatory attacks,” said von Spakovsky in his opening remarks.

The high-profile members relied on rhetorical sleight of hand to keep fraud at the forefront of the commission meeting. For one, people like von Spakovsky and Kobach constantly conflated data on phenomena like double voting and double registrations—which are rare among the billions of votes cast in the last two decades, but not unknown—with in-person impersonation and fraudulent voting by noncitizens, of which almost no hard data exists. Then they used those claims, which were presented as hard facts, as evidence for the need for an open-minded, “hard, dispassionate look at this subject,” as Kobach stated. But it seems the commission has already made up its mind, and has plans to act.

In his opening charge to the commission, Trump again alluded to murky claims of massive voter fraud, saying that in some cases, he’d heard of “cases involving large numbers of people in certain states.” He also criticized states that were noncompliant with the commission’s data request, asking: “What are they worried about? There’s something. There always is.” But he did not consider the possibility that what states are worried about is the commission itself.