WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced that he is disbanding a panel studying alleged voter fraud that became mired in lawsuits — including from Maine’s secretary of state — and faced resistance from states that accused it of overreach.
The decision is a major setback for Trump, who created the commission last year in response to his baseless claim that he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 because of millions of illegally cast ballots.
The commission met only twice amid the series of lawsuits seeking to curb its authority and claims by Democrats that it was stacked to recommend voting restrictions favorable to the president’s party.
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there is “substantial evidence of voter fraud” and blamed the ending of the commission on the refusal of many states to provide voter data sought by the commission and the cost of ongoing federal lawsuits.
The 11-member commission proved a magnet for controversy from the outset and was sued by one of its own members, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat who alleged in November that he has been kept in the dark about its operations, rendering his participation “essentially meaningless.”
A federal judge last month ruled partly in Dunlap’s favor. In a statement, he said the commission’s secrecy “brought nothing but suspicion” and “bankrupted it of any chance at public legitimacy” and that its end was “not a surprise.”
“While this chapter is now closed, I am committed to remaining vigilant on the front of election integrity and the transparent, free, and fair conduct of elections,” he said.
The panel, known as the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, had been nominally chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who has aggressively sought to prosecute alleged voter fraud in his state.
In the statement, Sanders said Trump had signed an executive order asking the Department of Homeland Security to review voter fraud issues and “determine next courses of action.”
“The commission never had anything to do with election integrity,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-New York, said in a statement. “It was instead a front to suppress the vote, perpetrate dangerous and baseless claims, and was ridiculed from one end of the country to the other. This shows that ill-founded proposals that just appeal to a narrow group of people won’t work, and we hope they’ll learn this lesson elsewhere.”
The commission had been targeted in at least eight other lawsuits seeking to curb its operations or make its deliberations more transparent. Several of those stemmed from an early sweeping request to states for voter data that some, including those led by Republicans, deemed too intrusive.
The panel met publicly in Washington in July and in New Hampshire in September. Other meetings planned across the country never materialized.
The panel was rattled in the fall 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.
The original executive order establishing the commission called 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.”
Despite the accusations of bias, both Trump and Pence had said in opening remarks at the first commission meeting that it had no preordained agenda.
That did not reassure critics.
“This commission started as a tragedy and ended as a farce,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a fierce critic of the panel. “It was a colossal waste of taxpayer money from the very beginning.”
A senior White House aide said Democrats on the commission were to blame for refusing to work with the panel, as were states that refused to turn over public data.
The aide, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of the commission and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the Department of Homeland Security is “better equipped to take up the matter.”
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.