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Almost every state resists Trump’s voter fraud commission

  • Secretary of State Kris Kobach talks with a reporter in his office in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday, May 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner) Orlin Wagner



Washington Post
Wednesday, July 05, 2017

In a rare display of bipartisanship, officials in nearly every state have said they will partially or fully refuse to comply with President Donald Trump’s voting commission, which has encountered criticism and opposition after issuing a sweeping request for voter data nationwide.

Even as some of the resistance centers on Trump and members of his commission, the broader responses from the states indicate a strong and widespread belief that local officials should be managing elections and that the White House’s request for volumes of information went too far.

“What it says is some Republicans actually still believe in federalism and that our constitution still governs the way states hold their elections,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime GOP strategist and frequent Trump critic, who called the resistance by Republican state-level officials “commendable.” He also pointed to the commission’s origins in Trump’s repeated – and unsubstantiated – claims that voter fraud is widespread and cost him the popular vote last year.

“If Trump’s theory is correct, that means these states allowed voter fraud to occur,” Wilson said. “By definition, it will have to include a bunch of Republican states, and they don’t like that. ... Most elections in the states are run beautifully.”

In his executive order, Trump said the group would issue a report identifying “vulnerabilities ... that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting.” Experts and voting-rights advocates called the group a “sham,” saying they fear it will lead to increased voting restrictions. It is unclear what the pushback against the recent requests could mean for the panel’s ultimate report, expected in 2018.

This unease has been notable for expanding beyond Democratic critics of the president and including Republicans such as Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan, who called the commission’s request a “hastily organized experiment,” and Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, who described it as “federal intrusion and overreach.”

At least 44 states have said they will provide just some or none of the requested information, according to interviews, public statements and media accounts. Officials with several other states have said they are still awaiting a formal letter from the commission before responding, while others have not elaborated on what they plan to provide.

Many states plan to hand over publicly available information, while others are outright refusing to participate. Experts say that partial responses could lead to further problems, because the commission could ultimately assemble disparate – and incomplete – information in an effort to draw a national picture.

“There’s gonna be a whole problem of uniformity and consistency that could create a lot of problems, even with the compiling of publicly available data,” said Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division during the Obama administration. “It’s hugely problematic to do this kind of thing and to do it with at least no explicit regard for existing privacy laws and concerns and no explicit mention of how this data will be used.”

The commission’s request also has been targeted by a lawsuit filed in federal court this week. In a complaint filed Monday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit focusing on privacy and civil liberties issues, asked a federal court to prevent the commission from collecting state voter roll data. Kobach’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.

The backlash has pushed the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity into public discussion for the first time since Trump started it last month, naming Vice President Mike Pence as the chairman and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, a leading conservative voice on concerns about voter fraud, as vice chairman.

Trump formed the commission after repeatedly suggesting that voter fraud cost him the popular vote against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton last year. Studies and state officials of both parties have found no evidence of widespread voting fraud.

Last week, the commission took its first public step by sending letters to all 50 states asking for a wide swath of information, “including, if publicly available under the laws of your state,” names, dates of birth, addresses and political parties of voters, along with the last four digits of Social Security numbers, if available. The commission also asked officials to offer recommendations for changing federal election law, a list of convictions for election-related crimes, evidence of voter fraud and several other things, all due by July 14.

The White House has pushed back against criticism of the requests, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary, calling state-level opposition a “political stunt.” In a statement, a spokesman for Pence said that the commission is simply “requesting publicly available data in accordance with each state’s laws in an effort to increase the integrity of our election system.”

Trump reacted angrily over the weekend to states’ refusing to provide the data, suggesting that officials might have nefarious motives and that he views the commission’s prime focus as voter fraud.

“Numerous states are refusing to give information to the very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “What are they trying to hide?”

Local, city and state officials – and, in particular, attorneys general – have taken an aggressive stance against the Trump administration on a number of fronts, seeking to fight back on issues including climate change, immigration and the president’s contested travel ban. Some state officials have outright refused to hand over the voter data Trump wants, while members of both parties have said state law or their own qualms prevented them from providing any more voter information than is necessary.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said his state “refuses to perpetuate the myth voter fraud played a role in our election.” Vermont Secretary of State James Condos, also a Democrat, said he was bound by law to hand over publicly available information but would provide no extra information to a commission he called “a waste of taxpayer money.”

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, had a more colorful response in a statement last week: “My reply would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from.”

The voting commission’s request also has been partially rebuffed by Kobach and Connie Lawson, another Republican member of the panel and secretary of state in Pence’s native Indiana, both of whom said they could not fully comply with their own request.

Kobach told the Kansas City Star that his state won’t give Social Security information to the commission, while Lawson released a statement saying state law prevented her from providing “the personal information requested by Secretary Kobach.”

A spokeswoman for Kobach did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, was among numerous officials saying he would provide publicly available information but not other things, such as driver’s license numbers and partial Social Security Numbers. Husted said he sees the commission as a way for state officials to tell the federal government ways they can help states conduct elections, including providing more funding for voting machines, which malfunctioned in multiple places on Election Day.

“I didn’t like it when the Obama administration wanted to use Homeland Security to declare our election system critical infrastructure,” Husted said in an interview after the commission’s letters went out. “I don’t want an increased federal role.”

“This information is ultimately in the hands of your state officials to manage,” he said. “What we will provide ... is not going to be anything that isn’t already publicly available. We’re providing nothing to the federal government that we don’t have an obligation under Ohio law to provide.”

Voting experts, already on edge because of the commission, say the inconsistent state responses could lead to problems.

“He’s not going to have apples to apples among states,” said Myrna Perez, director of the voting rights and elections project at the Brennan Center for Justice, questioning how worthwhile it would be if two states only provided responses to different questions, for example. “It’s unclear that even if the ends were appropriate that this would be a good mean to get there.”

Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California at Irvine, said the requests from the commission were unprecedented, noting that even when political groups and others ask for and purchase voters’ information, they do not necessarily approach this level of detail. He also said there was some hypocrisy involved in “this massive federal effort” to collect the data.

“Just imagine if Obama tried to do this,” Hasen said. “Obama picks the most left-wing secretary of state in the country then sends letters to every state saying send us all of your private voter information so we can produce a report on what would be best. ... There’d be a congressional investigation.”

A Politico/Morning Consult poll earlier this year found that 1 in 4 voters agreed with Trump that millions of votes were illegally cast last year. More than 4 in 10 voters also said they thought voter fraud was “very” or “somewhat” common during presidential elections.

John McKager “Mac” Stipanovich, a longtime GOP campaign operative in Florida, said states might push back against such requests from any president, but noted that the intensity of the responses might vary.

“I think if it were a different president, you might not get a markedly different result,” Stipanovich said. “But what you would not get is some of the heartfelt explanations about why they’re not complying.”

Criticism of the commission’s requests is unlikely to sway Trump’s core supporters, he said.

“Is it a black eye for Trump? Yes, with most of America,” Stipanovich said. “But with 35 percent of America, it is another element in the vast conspiracy to subvert America and destroy the republic. ... It won’t hurt Trump with those with whom he can’t be hurt.”

The pushback from states is a reminder that state officials are still in charge of their elections, said Michael Steel, a former senior aide to former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

“They protect those prerogatives and the privacy of their citizens zealously,” Steel said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’d be fierce resistance, regardless of the party of the president. I think it’s clear the commission is going to have to narrow its inquiry if it’s going to get results.”