Voting rights advocates and some state election officials cheered President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was disbanding his election fraud commission, but their celebration could be short-lived.
Trump convened the commission in May to investigate the 2016 presidential election after claims that between 3 million and 5 million illegally cast ballots had cost him the popular vote. Though Trump won the Electoral College, 304-227, winning 30 of 50 states.
Trump said in tweets last week that the states, mostly Democratic leaning, “fought hard that the Commission not see their records or methods because they know that many people are voting illegally.”
Many mostly Democrat States refused to hand over data from the 2016 Election to the Commission On Voter Fraud. They fought hard that the Commission not see their records or methods because they know that many people are voting illegally. System is rigged, must go to Voter I.D.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2018
States’ reasons for denying the requests varied. They included concerns that the commission’s ultimate goal was voter suppression primarily targeting the poor and minorities, voter privacy and issues of states’ rights.
Department of Homeland Security to take over election fraud probe
Trump disbanded the commission last week amid infighting and refusals by numerous states to cooperate. At the same time he transferred its mission to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That concerns some election officials and experts who had been critical of the commission.
DHS could have broad legal authority to conduct an investigation into claims of widespread voter fraud. Even President Barack Obama’s administration declared that election infrastructure is vital to national security, which is the DHS mission.
When asked why the task was going to Homeland Security and not another agency, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “That was the agency that was best determined by the administration and we’re moving forward and letting them take over the process.”
The White House “intends to destroy all state voter data” collected for President Trump’s dissolved voter fraud commission, a deputy assistant to the President said in a court filing Tuesday.
The data has not and will not be transferred to other agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, according to a court declaration by Charles C. Herndon, director of White House Information Technology.
Herndon’s sworn declaration was a departure from what the White House said last week when it announced the end of the commission and stated that Trump “has asked the Department of Homeland Security to review its initial findings and determine next courses of action.”
“The Commission did not create any preliminary findings,” Herndon said in Tuesday’s filing.
He added that the voter data wouldn’t go to any agency “except to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), pursuant to federal law, if the records are not otherwise destroyed.”
Opposition to DHS takeover of election fraud investigation
“I am deeply concerned that the work is being shifted over to DHS where it can be done behind closed doors and without the sunshine offered from open public scrutiny,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat, said in a statement Thursday to The Associated Press.
Condos said the move “only fuels fears of a federal takeover” of elections, which are overseen by the states and carried out by thousands of local jurisdictions. The decentralized nature of the country’s elections has been seen as a buffer against attempts at widespread manipulation.
However, many view the disparity in election processes between states as a potential breeding ground for election fraud. They claim that a more uniform process would help discourage voter fraud. States would still maintain control over elections, but within a more uniform national election process.
It wasn’t immediately clear what direction the Department of Homeland Security would take.
“At the President’s direction, the Department continues to work in support of state governments who are responsible for administering elections, with efforts focused on securing elections against those who seek to undermine the election system or its integrity,” DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton said in an email to the AP.
Kobach and other Republicans have pushed for state laws requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls or to provide papers documenting U.S. citizenship to register.
The Kansas secretary of state’s prominent role on the commission fueled opposition to it. Kansas has some of the nation’s toughest voter ID laws, and Kobach has been enmeshed in multiple lawsuits. Before Trump took office, Kobach took a proposal into a meeting with the president-elect laying out ideas for changing federal laws to make it easier for states to impose such requirements.
On Thursday, Kobach told the AP that the Department of Homeland Security could move forward by checking its list of non-citizens living in the U.S. against voter registration data.
“The work will continue, but now it will continue in a forum where they won’t have a seat at the table, and so really all they’ve done is taken themselves away from the table,” he said of his critics. Adding, “It’s hugely ironic.”
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat and vocal critic of the commission, said:
“It’s time to put an end to this useless exercise designed to soothe his insecurities about losing the popular vote in 2016.”
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said in a statement that she hopes the Department of Homeland Security focuses on non-partisan election security issues “like foreign interference and cybersecurity.”
Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a critic of the commission, questioned whether the declaration that election infrastructure is vital to national security gives DHS authority for a broad investigation of domestic voting issues. She also said the department is going to face similar obstacles in seeking information from the states.
There have been proven isolated cases of people voting illegally and many voter rolls contain outdated data. However, there has been no verified evidence of widespread voter fraud as Trump has suggested. Past studies have found voter fraud to be exceptionally rare. Although such studies have the same obstacles that the voter fraud commission faced, namely lack of access to data and information.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin — who refused to hand over voter information to the commission — said DHS would have to show a legitimate reason for wanting the state’s voter data. If it doesn’t, the Democrat said he would fight any request in court.
There are valid concerns on all sides and Americans hold the right to vote in high esteem. There is a delicate balance between securing everyone’s right to vote and protecting against the abuse and manipulation of the system. Just as there is a balance between state’s right and federal power.
It remains to be seen whether DHS can find that balance. Whether it can get through the politics and partisan positioning that thwarted the commission’s progress or not. However, all sides seem to agree that our election system is broken, be it due to fraud, suppression or foreign interference. What no one can seem to agree on is how to fix it.