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Amid Skepticism And Scrutiny, Election Integrity Commission Holds First Meeting

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Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach with then-President-elect Donald Trump at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., in November 2016. Kobach was tapped by Trump as vice chair of a commission on election integrity that's been beset with controversy.

President Trump's Advisory Commission on Election Integrity holds its first public meeting on Wednesday under what seems to be an ever-expanding cloud.

The panel has faced credibility problems right from the start, and the concerns have only grown:

  • The commission was proposed by President Trump earlier this year to investigate his belief that as many as 5 million people voted illegally last November — an allegation dismissed as unfounded by the vast majority of the nation's election officials and experts.
  • When the commission was set up in May, it was described as "bipartisan." But the two leaders — Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — are both Republicans.
  • Subsequent appointments have also raised eyebrows. Some on the 12-member panel have little or no election experience — such as Maryland Deputy Secretary of State Luis Borunda, who resigned earlier this month citing a heavy workload. Four of the seven Republicans on the panel — Kobach, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, and former Justice Department attorneys J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky — are among the nation's leading advocates for tighter voting laws to prevent fraud, something they claim is pervasive.
  • The panel's first action was to ask all 50 states to send in detailed voter registration records — including things such as names, dates of birth and voting history — so the commission could study the extent of voter fraud. Some states refused to comply. Many others said they would comply reluctantly and provide limited data.

Complaints about the commission have been bipartisan.

"They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from, " said Mississippi's Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann in response to the panel's request for voter data.

Echoing other Democrats and voting rights advocates, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said the commission has been set up to justify new voting restrictions — such as strict photo ID requirements — that could impose barriers to legitimate voters, especially minorities.

"California's participating would only serve to legitimize the false and already debunked claims of massive voter fraud made by the president, the vice president and Mr. Kobach," said Padilla.

In a recent interview with NPR, Kobach dismissed concerns that the commission is trying to impose stricter voting restrictions by changing federal laws.

"I know that most states prefer to keep the control of elections at the state level, and so federal legislation hasn't been warmly received by the states," he said. "The commission may see that there's a particular problem and may recommend to the states, 'Hey, you individual states might want to consider adopting this bill or that bill.' That's possible, but again, I don't know what the commission will decide."

However, as part of a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union to Kobach's efforts to impose proof-of-citizenship requirements on Kansas voters, it was revealed that he hoped to revise a federal voting law to allow such requirements, as first reported by the Huffington Post.

Hacking attempts

The commission's first meeting comes as more details of Russian attempts to attack parts of the nation's election system during the 2016 election have emerged.

Padilla, the California secretary of state, charged the Trump administration with attempting to "discredit or ignore" the intelligence community's assessment about the Russian government's role in those efforts while focusing on issues such as voter fraud.

In fact, the panel's leaders have said they plan to look at any problems with the nation's voting system that undermine public confidence in the integrity of federal elections. In his letter to states requesting the voter data, Kobach also asked for recommendations on how to prevent voter intimidation or disenfranchisement, and on how to help "state and local election administrators with regard to information technology security and vulnerabilities."

Still, many election officials are skeptical that the White House commission can offer much new to the debate over how to improve elections, something state and local officials have been talking about and working on for years.

In response to Kobach's request for voter data and advice, Colorado's Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams sent a nine-page letter that begins: "Elections are working well in Colorado."

Williams said voter fraud in his state is rare but suggested that the federal government encourage more states to participate in a multi-state effort already under way to clean up voter registration lists, called the Election Registration and Information Center. He also said federal agencies should share with states any information they have related to hacking attempts and other threats to their election systems. Many election officials say they're far more concerned about election cybersecurity and aging voting equipment than fraud.

How much the commission will dwell on these topics is unknown. The agenda for the first public meeting is sparse — members will be introduced and are then scheduled to talk for about an hour about what topics they'd like the commission to address.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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