The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity — established in May through an executive order to investigate President Donald Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the 2016 election — met for the first time Wednesday amid concerns that the commission fosters voter suppression and privacy violations.
The meeting consisted of a ceremonial swearing-in of members, member introductions, discussion of the commission’s charge and comments from invited experts.
But the benign start of controversial commission, which currently faces at least seven lawsuits, belied the deep reservations many have concerning the initiative.
Ahead of the meeting, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and House Judiciary Committee Democrats hosted on Tuesday afternoon a congressional forum to examine voting rights and privacy concerns related to recent requests made by the commission’s co-chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
A panel of experts, many of whom belong to groups who have filed lawsuits against the commission, and secretaries of state joined the members of Congress to express concerns about the commission.
“This commission, before even having its first meeting, has done an incredible amount of harm to our democracy,” said panelist and NAACP Legal Defense Fund Associate Director Janai Nelson.
The group filed a federal lawsuit alleging the voting commission “was formed with the intent to discriminate against voters of color in violation of the Constitution.”
In June, the Department of Justice and the commission co-chaired by Kobach and Vice President Mike Pence sent letters to secretaries of states and election officials in all 50 states asking for them to provide procedures used to maintain their voter registration list as well as detailed voter-roll information including name, address, birthdate, political party affiliation, voting history, military status and even Social Security number.
The letters said the information will help the commission “fully analyze vulnerabilities and issues related to voter registration and voting.”
“Despite media distortions and obstruction by a handful of state politicians, 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,” Kobach said in a July 5 statement.
The request sparked nationwide bipartisan backlash.
CBC members sent letters to the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors raising blasting the commission request.
“The breadth of the information requested … is not only overwhelming but chilling from a civil rights and liberties perspective,” the CBC members wrote. “In addition to being used to conduct further discriminatory voter purges, one shudders to think of the many ways this information could be misused.”
So far, 20 states have agreed to provide the information requested, 16 states are reviewing which information can be released under their state law and 14 states and D.C. have refused the commission’s request.
Further exacerbating concerns for many, the White House recently released hundreds of pages of public comments on concerns with the commission’s efforts that contained sensitive information.
Panelist Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law called the voting commission a “sham” and said it encouraged voter suppression efforts by intimidating lawful and eligible voters from registering.
Colorado officials reported that more than 3,500 voters have cancelled voter registrations since the voting commission launched its probe.
The Lawyer’s Committee also filed a lawsuit alleging noncompliance with federal transparency laws and a Hatch Act complaint alleging that Kobach used his seat in the commission to promote his upcoming run for Kansas governor.
“At the federal level, we actually have laws and regulations that limit the ability of [federal] agencies to match data and make adverse determinations,” said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who filed a lawsuit against the commission alleging privacy violations. “It seems to us [Kobach] is trying to undertake the activities of the commission outside of the framework of federal law.”
In response to the lawsuit, the commission asserted it is not an agency and “is solely advisory,” therefore not subject to certain federal regulations.