Democratic members of President Trump's voter fraud commission are voicing mounting frustration about its mission and lack of collaboration, raising questions about the future of a bipartisan panel that has been a magnet for controversy since its inception.
In just the past week, two of the commission’s four Democrats have written letters to its executive director, demanding basic information such as when the panel might meet again, what kind of research is being conducted by its staff and when it might send a report to the president.
Their concerns are being fed by suspicions that the panel's direction was preordained and that the agenda is being driven by its Republican members, several of whom would like to see restrictions on voting imposed that would be detrimental to Democrats.
“I think the basis of this whole commission was an urban legend,” said Alan King, a probate judge in Alabama and one of the Democratic members who recently wrote commission leaders seeking information. “If you’re going to go down this road, it needs to be done right, and it needs to be done in a professional way. So far, I haven’t seen that.”
The commission was launched by Trump following his baseless assertion that he would have won the popular vote if he hadn't been thwarted by as many as 5 million illegally cast votes.
The 11-member panel, which is nominally chaired by Vice President Pence and formally known as the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, has met publicly twice, in Washington in July and in New Hampshire last month. A third meeting has yet to be announced.
“For all I know, we may never meet again,” said Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state and a Democratic commissioner.
Asked about plans for future meetings, the commission’s executive director, Andrew Kossack, issued a statement leaving open the possibility that there would be none.
“The Commission continues to review information obtained during the last meeting and will keep all Commission members updated should further meetings be scheduled,” Kossack said.
The panel was rattled in recent weeks by two unforeseen events: the arrest of a staff member on charges of possessing child pornography and the death of one of the commissioners, Democrat David Dunn, a former Arkansas state legislator.
Dunlap said the only formal communication he’s had with commission staff since the Sept. 12 meeting in New Hampshire was an email about Dunn’s death.
In a letter last week to the executive director of the commission, Dunlap demanded copies of all correspondence between its members since its inception, citing a provision of federal law that he said entitles him to that information.
Dunlap said that his concerns have been growing for some time but that he was prompted to write his letter after learning of the arrest of Ronald Williams II, a policy adviser for the commission.
Dunlap said he first heard about the arrest when he was walking into church two Sundays ago and received a text message from a reporter asking about it. There still has been no formal communication about the arrest from the commission, he said.
Despite the concerns raised by Democratic members, J. Christian Adams, a Republican on the commission, said he remains confident that the group will fulfill its mission.
“I think it’s a good idea to actually try to work together and get something done,” said Adams, who leads an organization whose work has included a report titled “Alien Invasion II,” which details the presence of noncitizens on the voter rolls in Virginia.
The executive order establishing the commission calls for it to produce a report to Trump detailing laws and policies that both enhance and undermine “the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), the vice chairman of the commission, who has vigorously sought prosecution of illegal voting in his state, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democratic member of the commission, criticized Kobach at the panel's last meeting for having written a piece for Breitbart News in which he speculated, without evidence, that the result of New Hampshire's Senate election last year "likely" changed because of voter fraud.
But in an interview last week, Gardner said he remains hopeful that the commission can do some good after what he acknowledged has been a very rocky start.
“Sometimes if you’re tested severely at the beginning, you end up much stronger at the end,” Gardner said.
Among other things, Gardner would like the commission to examine why average voter turnout in presidential elections since 1972 has been lower than in the previous five elections, despite multiple efforts across the country since then to make voting easier.
“I think we will meet again,” Gardner said. “I have no reason to think we will not.”
Even before the panel first convened in July — at a meeting where Pence assured the public there were “no preconceived notions” — it was the source of considerable controversy.
A request to states for massive amounts of voter data was met with a public outcry, including from some Republican secretaries of state, who said it was overly broad and raised privacy concerns. Among the information requested were home addresses, dates of birth and partial Social Security numbers.
Leaders of the commission have defended the request, saying that lost in the controversy was the fact that letters sent to states requested only publicly available data, an acknowledgment that disclosure laws vary from state to state.
The commission has also drawn multiple lawsuits and other complaints seeking to curb its authority and force it to conduct more of its work in public.
Among the latest was a complaint filed last week with the Office of Special Counsel alleging that members of the commission are violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits most executive-branch employees from engaging in political activity while on duty.
The complaint, filed by the American Democracy Legal Fund, contends that Kobach and others on the commission are "trying to leverage governmental authority to lend credibility to implausible claims of widespread voter fraud."
Trump's commission also continues to draw the ire of Democratic members of Congress.
A letter signed last week by 18 Democratic senators complained that their previous letters to the commission had gone unanswered and said they continue to be concerned about the commission's collection of data from the states.
A separate letter from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) sought information about the commission's vetting process for staff in the wake of the news of the arrest of Williams.
Among the questions she posed: "Did the staffer charged with possession and distribution of child pornography have access to voter data, including data collected for minors who pre-register to vote?"
Klobuchar requested answers by Wednesday.
A commission official told The Washington Post that Williams, a Maryland resident, was on loan from the Office of Special Counsel and had held several previous positions in the Justice Department, spanning multiple administrations, where background checks and security clearances were required.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel matter.
Neither of the Democratic members of the commission who wrote critical letters last week said they have plans to step down.
“I’ve served on civic club subcommittees where there was a lot more contact than what I have on what I assumed was a pretty high-level presidential commission,” King said. But, he added: “If I step down, I’m kind of giving in to the agenda. At my core, I don’t run away from issues. At core, that’s not who I am.”