As President Trump’s voter fraud commission prepared to convene in New Hampshire this week, it already faced questions about its seriousness of purpose and whether it was a hopelessly biased endeavor.
Then things got worse.
An email surfaced in which the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, one of the commission’s most conservative members, lamented that Trump was appointing Democrats and “mainstream” Republicans to the bipartisan panel.
Its vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), drew rebukes from voting rights advocates — and a couple of fellow commissioners — for an article he wrote for the hard-right Breitbart News website. The article asserted, without proof, that voter fraud had likely changed the result in New Hampshire’s most recent U.S. Senate race.
A third Republican on the panel, J. Christian Adams of Virginia, later feuded on Twitter with a journalist, questioning whether she had lied about her academic credentials. She had not.
The fresh controversies angered some Democratic commissioners already feeling heat from their party for being on Trump’s commission, which critics say is really aimed at making it more difficult to vote. Even some Republicans following the commission and sympathetic to its mission said it may now face an even tougher job of selling any recommendations it crafts.
“Let’s just say the execution has been less than perfect,” said Barry Bennett, a campaign adviser to Trump last year. The ongoing “fusses” could make it more difficult for the commission to make its case, Bennett said.
The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity was formed in response to Trump’s baseless claim that millions of illegally cast ballots cost him the popular vote against Hillary Clinton last year. Leading members — including Vice President Pence, who serves nominally as chairman — have nevertheless insisted they launched their work with no preconceived notions and would follow the facts wherever they might lead.
By the end of a seven-hour meeting on Tuesday, some Democratic members of the panel were openly questioning that proposition, saying they had witnessed a one-sided parade of testimony by conservative analysts that overstated the evidence of voting fraud.
“I don’t think we’re going in a productive direction right now,” said Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state and one of five Democrats on the 12-member commission. “The panels were dominated by darkness and foreboding.”
Dunlap said in an interview that he was highly offended by von Spakovsky’s email, which was released later in the day by an advocacy group that had unearthed it through a public-records request. The email, which was eventually forwarded to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was written in February, as Trump was preparing to make appointments to the panel.
“There isn’t a single Democratic official that will do anything other than obstruct any investigation of voter fraud,” von Spakovsky wrote in the email, relaying that he had just learned that Trump intended to make the panel bipartisan. “That decision alone shows how little the [White House] understands about this issue.”
Von Spakovsky added that “if they are picking mainstream Republican officials and/or academics to man this commission it will be an abject failure.”
Dunlap said von Spakovsky was trying to keep people like him from serving, adding that he is well-respected by legislators in both parties in Maine.
“It really taints Mr. Spakovsky’s participation on the commission,” Dunlap said. “If he had any dignity, he’d step down.”
Through a spokeswoman, von Spakovsky said he “no plans whatsoever” to step down, had written the email to “private individuals” and had no idea it would be forwarded to Sessions or become public. The copy of the email released by the Justice Department redacted the name of the original recipient.
Adams — who has conducted years of research on voting by noncitizens, including in Virginia — said that the widespread opposition to the commission’s work by Democrats was in effect “proving Hans right.”
“Some people don’t want to get to the truth about vulnerabilities in our elections,” Adams said of the panel, which he also said includes some open-minded Democrats.
For his part, Adams said that he considered the meeting in New Hampshire to be “fantastic” and that it showed there are areas where Republicans and Democrats can “work together to fix vulnerabilities in the election system.”
Democrats are not alone in criticizing the panel.
Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman, said he has not been a fan of the commission from the outset. Its attempts to address voter fraud amount to “taking a bulldozer to a problem that you could probably use a shovel on,” he said.
“There’s no reason to go down this road and create all these political firestorms,” Steele said.
Kobach’s Breitbart piece ignited one of the firestorms, and the most dramatic moment of this past week’s meeting came when New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democrat on the commission, confronted Kobach about the column.
“You questioned whether our election as we have recorded it is real and valid,” Gardner said to Kobach, “and it is real and valid.”
He added that Kobach’s article was not helpful for a commission trying to convince the public that it had reached no preordained conclusions.
“I hope we all learn from this,” Gardner said. He also relayed that he was resisting calls from his all-Democratic congressional delegation to resign from the commission, saying he considered it his civic duty to continue serving.
Kobach, who has aggressively pursued cases of voter fraud in Kansas, argued in his Breitbart piece that the U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire, which was decided by 1,017 votes, “likely” turned on illegally cast ballots. He pointed to state data showing that 5,313 people with out-of-state driver’s licenses registered to vote on Election Day but did not apply later for New Hampshire licenses.
Voting rights advocates say many of those appear to be college students, who are allowed to vote under state law.
“Very somberly, he waves the bloody shirt of voter fraud, and it’s just people complying with the law,” Dunlap said of Kobach. “How does that help his cause?”
Alan King, another Democrat on the commission, said he had misgivings as well about the direction in which his Republican colleagues are moving.
“If we’re just going to parade people through to say what they want them to say, this isn’t a good approach,” said King, a probate judge in Alabama. “This nation deserves a legitimate commission that gives a fair shake to the evidence. If you don’t have that, it’s a total waste of everyone’s time.”
Neither Pence’s office nor Kobach responded to multiple requests for interviews.
The commission had already sparked several controversies, including with a sweeping request to states for voter roll information that even some Republican secretaries of state said was overly broad. A federal judge also recently chastised the commission for not sharing public documents ahead of its organizational meeting.
Several Republicans interviewed for this article suggested that Trump would have been better off tasking the Republican National Committee with looking into voter fraud rather than trying to set up a bipartisan commission operating under government rules.
Doing that would allow the work to go forward without constant questions about the commission’s balance, Bennett said.
“They could still produce a report that could be devastating and remove all these political fusses,” Bennett said.
The executive order establishing the commission says it will issue a report to Trump identifying laws, policies and practices that both enhance and detract from public confidence in voting, and identify weaknesses in voting systems and practices that can lead to fraudulent voting.
The recommendations would be strictly advisory and would be dependent on officials at the state, federal or local levels taking action to implement them.
Regardless of the commission’s ultimate fate, some critics fear that it is making an impact by traveling the country to hold meetings and make local headlines.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — one of several groups that have taken legal action against the commission — said its travels could “plant the seeds for laws and policies” to make voting harder.
“In my view, part of the goal here is to take this parade on the road . . . and use the commission to promote this false narrative,” Clarke said.