It didn’t surprise me when I got an email from the White House on Wednesday night that President Donald Trump had moved to dissolve the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The move came without warning, but given how incredibly dysfunctional the process had been from the start, dissolution was inevitable.
Twelve days earlier, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that as a member of the commission, I am entitled to share in the work of the commission and to know when and where we were meeting, what communications we were having and what the commission was working on. That shockingly obvious conclusion came only after I filed a lawsuit to get answers to those very basic questions.
The demise of the commission was inevitable simply because the voter-fraud vampire hunters on the panel and in the White House prioritized a desired result of the commission’s work above any sense of process. It didn’t matter that evidence of actual voter misconduct is incredibly rare anywhere in the United States; we’ve all heard the ghost stories, and the Trump administration’s solution was to find those ghosts and exorcise them.
But that’s not how the Trump administration spun the commission’s work.
I, for one, took Vice President Mike Pence at his word when he said at our initial meeting in Washington on July 19 that the commission would go forward without “preconceived notions or preordained results.” But statements made by Vice Chairman Kris Kobach and the president have made it clear that not everyone shared that laudable philosophy. After dissolving the commission, the president said on Twitter that we need strong voter identification laws to fight rampant voter fraud, and Kobach explained that Trump’s directive to shift the work to the Department of Homeland Security represents a “tactical shift by the president who remains very committed to finding the scope of voter fraud.”
No preordained results. No preconceived notions. Indeed.
Before the commission’s meeting in New Hampshire on Sept. 12, Kobach published an editorial in Breitbart News explicating “proof” of “voter fraud” in that state, based on the premise that 5,526 people — mostly college students who had registered to vote and who voted on Election Day in 2016 — still had not obtained New Hampshire driver’s licenses 10 months later. There: obvious voter fraud.
Well, not so fast. Under New Hampshire law, students enjoy a special carve-out. They could use their out-of-state credentials to register and vote — thereby declaring domicile — without establishing legal, permanent residency, which would otherwise carry obligations such as converting driver’s licenses. In other words, U.S. citizens living in New Hampshire can exercise their right to vote without being slandered with the charge of “voter fraud.”
After Kobach made his claims, it was obvious to me that he and I may have been using the word “fraud” in very different ways. I would define “fraud” as voter misconduct; but in indicting New Hampshire law — which he clearly regarded as illegitimate — Kobach twisted the word to further his political agenda, which has historically meant making it harder for minorities, students, the poor and anyone else possibly sympathetic toward Democrats to vote.
Now he says, “Anyone on the left needs to realize that by throwing the food in the air, they just lost a seat at the table.” I find that striking because all I wanted was to participate in the process and try to answer the president’s question of whether there is something wrong with American elections. It may be that the president knows full well that there’s no evidence to back up his claim that he would have won the popular vote if 5 million illegal votes hadn’t been cast and that scuttling the commission will save his administration the embarrassment of facing those facts.
The dissolution of the commission does not void the force of the District Court ruling, and I am still committed to obtaining the documents generated by the commission. In the American system of self-governance, the people have a right to know what their government is working on.
The president’s action shows that he never took the process seriously, and when it wasn’t going his way, he pulled the plug. The directive to move the commission’s work to the Department of Homeland Security is another hide-the-ball trick designed to find a different way to get the results that he and Kobach seek. But if I’ve learned anything in this process — based on the intense and passionate input from the American people — it’s that they won’t be able to do this in the dark anymore.
Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, is Maine’s secretary of state and a former member of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.
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