The Republican officials that make up the bulk of Trump voter fraud commission did little in terms of toning down the hyped voter fraud rhetoric they’ve employed in the past that had prompted civil rights groups to worry that the commission would be used as a pretext for more suppressive elections policies.
At the commission’s first in-person meeting Wednesday, President Trump himself, in his brief appearance in front of the panel, hyped up the fraud threat by recounting tales of “irregularities” told to him on the campaign trail “having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states.”
Other commission members floated allegations of “vulnerabilities” that could be allowing illegal voting, even though prosecutions of voter fraud have been few and far between.
The Republicans did face a little bit of push back from the handful of Democrats on the committee who urged that access to the ballot box be also considered as part of the commission’s mission.
At the beginning of the meeting, its chair, Vice President Mike Pence insisted that the commission had “no preconceived notions or preordained results.” Yet an emphasis on voter registration — and whether, as one member suggested, a cause of low voter turnout is that it is too easy to register to vote — provided hints of where things were headed.
The commission is being vice chaired by Kansas of Secretary State Kris Kobach (R), who has fanned the claims of mass voter fraud, even as he has prosecuted only a handful of cases and seen his restrictive proposals batted down in court.
“For a long time there’s been lingering doubt among many Americans about the integrity and fairness of elections,” he said, citing polling data.
He pointed to 128 instances in which he said non-eligible voters were registered or attempted to register to vote in his state, a finding he had raised as part of lawsuit against one of his restrictive proposals.
(An ACLU lawyer who has opposed him in court countered on Twitter that Kobach has only prosecuted one of these cases: “It’s an epidemic of historic magnitude,” the ACLU’s Dale Ho quipped.)
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg. One expert in the case estimated that the total number could be in the excess of 18,000 on our voter rolls,” Kobach said Wednesday, citing a survey that had a sample size of 37.
He was joined on the commission by former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R), who during the 2004 election, sought to throw out voter registrations for not being printed on thick enough paper.
Blackwell argued that “most voting laws combat abuses rooted in the past that denied Americans access to the voting booth,” while claiming that the Constitution assumed voters should “be willing to satisfy reasonable regulations and shoulder incidental burdens in fulfillment of their civic duty.”
Coupled together, those comments seemed to justify restrictive voting policies, while relegating the federal laws that have been used to block them in court as being meant for historical racial discrimination that no longer exists.
Fellow commissioner J. Christian Adams, a former DOJ official hired during the George W. Bush years who has since undertaken his own private efforts to purge voter rolls, remarked upon the “recurring indications that individuals are getting registered to vote” despite being ineligible.
A colleague of his from the Bush’s DOJ, Hans von Spakovsky, also a commission member, called the current system of preventing ineligible voters from registering “basically an honor system.”
He pushed back at “unfair, unjust and unwarranted criticism” he and the commission has received.
“Members of this commission including me have already been subjected to vicious and defamatory personal attacks,” he said.
There are five Democrats on the 12-member committee, and for the most part, they appeared mildly skeptical of their GOP counterparts’ emphasis on fraud.
Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said the commission should go about its work “in a way that is balanced … towards access of the voting public to participate in their government.”
Another Democrat, Alabama probate judge Alan King, said he had seen no evidence of voter fraud in his 16 and a half years overseeing elections in Jefferson County, Alabama.
Mark Rhodes, a country clerk from West Virginia, recounted having to vote provisionally in one election due an administrative error.
“There are things that do happen and we try to make sure that every legally cast ballot counts,” he said.
The exception in tone among the Democrats was New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (D), who has spent most of his career working with a GOP legislature and has opposed early voting because it “cheapens the value” of election day.
He took dead aim at the National Voter Registration Act, a law that many experts believe the commission under Kobach will ultimately seek to scale back, since it has prevented Kobach from implementing a proof-of-citizenship registration requirement.
Gardner claimed Wednesday the law was partially blamed for the elections debacle in Florida in 2000.
“All of that problem that we saw in Florida— put aside the punch card machine— but people showing up to vote [without being registered], was the result of that federal law that opened the process of registration,” Gardner said. “It didn’t get more people to vote. Automatic voter registration is not going to get more people to vote. It is the will of the voter, it is the value that the voter sees.”