A member of President Donald Trump’s commission on election integrity said the panel should have known the American public would have been outraged by a request for voters’ personal information.
“The fullness of experience being what it is, we should have predicted it,” Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said in an interview on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the vice chairman of the commission, Kansas secretary of state and gubernatorial hopeful Kris Kobach, issued a defiant statement via the office of Vice President Mike Pence, who is co-chairing the panel on Trump’s behalf.
The commission, which Trump has specifically called a “voter fraud panel,” has spooked citizens and public officials alike. The crux of the fear: What critics have called an overly broad and invasive request for details about Americans’ registrations, party affiliation, participation in elections, military and criminal histories and even partial Social Security numbers.
“When I heard the news reports, you know, it sounded like the commission was going to propose rounding people up,” Dunlap said.
Even Dunlap himself isn’t providing the requested data to the commission on which he serves, because Maine law won’t allow it.
But in a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon through Pence’s office, Kobach insisted that “While there are news reports that 44 states have ‘refused’ to provide voter information to the Commission, these reports are patently false, more ‘fake news.’”
At present, only 14 states and the District of Columbia have refused the Commission’s request for publicly available voter information. 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.
The panel’s request “deals with how people participate in election and that’s something that people are very very protective of,” said Dunlap.
He said his office has gotten “hundreds and hundreds of e-mails uniformly saying things like, ‘Don’t you dare turn my Social Security number over to the federal government.’ A little ironic, since that’s where it comes from, but ... people are very concerned.”
The data request — which is in part causing consternation because the panel’s plans haven’t really been laid out and because Kobach has developed a reputation as a hardliner on voter registration issues — “is something that people feel very viscerally about,” Dunlap said.
“That’s been borne out by the reaction that we’ve gotten, and I think that you’ve seen across the country on a very, very nonpartisan basis. Republicans and Democrats seem to feel the same way about it.”
During a recent conference call, members of the panel discussed “the idea of getting some gauge on how many people actually are registered to vote in more than one state — which, by the way, is not [itself alone] against the law,” Dunlap said.
“And what we talked about was that it should be a request; it should not be a demand, and it should only include that information that could be made publicly available.”
Because the commission hadn’t officially met to begin business, Dunlap said the letter signed by Kobach and sent to all 50 states wasn’t first vetted by other panel members.
As for the reaction, Dunlap said, “some of that speaks to the politics of all this because it’s the Trump administration and Kobach, who has a very electric reputation, shall we say. I think people just immediately reacted that ‘This is all a sham and don’t do this to me.’”
But Dunlap, a Democrat, thinks the panel does have potential to make a positive statement about protecting voting rights:
“The most useful thing that could come out of it is having the open discussion about the right of people to vote and the opportunity to vote and the security of elections,” he said. “And when you’re talking about enhancing security, that you don’t inadvertently put almost insurmountable barriers in front of people in participating in elections.”
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, concerned about the potential for voter intimidation, last month opened a hotline for the public to report future run-ins or concerns with the panel once it begins its work. It has also campaigned for citizens to contact their state officials who operate elections to “demand they condemn this massive federal overreach and protect your private data.”
The committee also this week filed two federal complaints against Kobach, questioning whether he had misused his vice chairmanship of the presidential panel to promote and raise money for his 2018 run for Kansas governor.
In response, Kobach spokeswoman Samantha Poetter said via email on Wednesday, “We are certain that no Hatch Act violations have occurred. This is nothing but a bunch of liberal lawyers trying to create a story.”
The Lawyers’ Committee is now opening a fresh line of questioning ahead of the panel’s first official meeting later this month by “using a unique tool that requires the commission to make materials immediately available for inspection.”
That tool is the Federal Advisory Committee Act. It dates back to 1972 and is “legal foundation defining how federal advisory committees operate,” including requirements for holding open meetings and making information public about how such groups operate.
In a Monday letter to the voter panel, the White House counsel’s office and the Office of Administration, the Lawyers’ Committee requested details about all communications related to the panel since May 11:
“This commission has been operating in the darkness and its actions have been shrouded in secrecy,” Lawyers’ Committee President Kristen Clarke said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Through today’s action, we seek to shine light on [its] activities.”
A notice posted in the Federal Register on Wednesday gave details for the first meeting of the election integrity commission, which is set for July 19 in Washington, D.C.
The notice specifies the gathering will be accessible to the public — but just via a White House livestream — and that “there will not be oral comments from the public at this initial meeting.”’
July 5, 2017, 6:32 p.m.: This story has been updated.