Since 2000, no fewer than three blue-ribbon commissions have been convened after contentious elections to examine what went wrong during the vote and how future elections might be improved. The one that assembles on Wednesday, in a rococo 19th-century office building just steps from the White House, bears no resemblance to any of them.
For one thing, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, begins 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 the commission’s 12 members.
For another, a broad range of experts and ordinary citizens already has written off its legitimacy. They charge that it is less an inquiry into voting fraud and faith in honest elections — its stated purposes — than an effort to bolster President Trump’s baseless claim that illegally cast ballots robbed him of a popular vote victory in November. And they say such an inflated conclusion could give Republicans in Congress ammunition to enact federal legislation curbing the ability of minorities, the poor and other Democratic-leaning groups to register and cast ballots.
The commission’s day-to-day operations are run by its vice chairman, Kris Kobach, the Republican secretary of state in Kansas and among the nation’s most zealous proponents of the notion that illegal voting is unchecked. Mr. Kobach has failed to find evidence of that in his state, and experts and academic studies repeatedly have shown that fraud — especially the in-person fraud targeted by voter ID laws — is a minuscule problem. At least three other Republicans on the panel are leading crusaders for tougher restrictions on voting.
Some commissioners say the criticism of the commission before it has even met 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.
But opponents say the commission already has overstepped so many bounds, from its membership to procedural requirements like posting public documents and holding open meetings, that it now has to earn people’s trust.
“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 will be 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 released under freedom of information rules, 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. Mr. Trump said on Twitter: “Numerous states are refusing to give information to the very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL. What are they trying to hide?”
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.
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump’s panel is expected to discuss generally its goals and how it intends to operate. Already, however, much attention is focused on its charge to identify “vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.” That is the cause célèbre of Mr. Kobach, whose own far-reaching antifraud campaign has netted only nine convictions since 2011 in a state with 1.6 million registered voters.
Mr. Kobach’s allies on the panel have similar interests. 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.
Much of this stands in contrast to previous election commissions, which operated in bipartisan fashion even when they produced contentious recommendations.
A panel convened after the 2000 elections and headed by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford made recommendations that led eventually to a major law, the Help America Vote Act, and a gush of federal money to replace aging voting machines.
Another commission led by Mr. Carter, a Democrat, and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, was charged in 2005 with finding ways to build public confidence in elections. Yet another, commissioned in 2013 by President Barack Obama, focused on modernizing election procedures and easing the long lines at polling places that plagued the 2012 vote. That commission was headed by the general counsels of the two major parties’ 2012 presidential campaigns.
The Trump commission is led by Mr. Pence, a Republican who can reasonably be seen to have presidential ambitions of his own, and Mr. Kobach, a declared candidate for Kansas governor. Critics say that places two partisans in charge of a body asked to recommend changes in procedures for elections in which they may be candidates.
Mr. Kobach has said the panel is the undeserving victim of biased reporting and has important work to do.
“Despite media distortions and obstruction by a handful of state politicians,” he said in a statement this month, “this bipartisan commission on election integrity will continue its work to gather the facts through public records requests to ensure the integrity of each American’s vote because the public has a right to know.”
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