Civil rights groups have rejected the U.S. Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity as a plot to reduce voting rights as the commission held its first meeting Wednesday.
The panel was formed to investigate the president's unfound claim that millions of illegal voters cost him the popular vote in November but has faced lacerating criticism from Democrats and voting rights groups that argued it could be a vehicle for changes that would make it harder for lawful voters to cast ballots — and by a number of state governments reluctant to hand over information about their voters to the White House.
The voter fraud panel consists of 10 members including Hans von Spakovsky, who is known for leading an effort to purge voter rolls in Missouri during George W. Bush's administration. Due to his role, he was later blocked from a seat on the Federal Election Commission.
Civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers have said the commission could lead to new ID requirements and other measures making it harder to vote.
"I can tell you, President Trump, that we will be watching your commission," said U.S. Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama, an African-American whose district includes the civil rights landmarks Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, where, she said, "people died, bled and fought for the right to vote."
According to the Washington Post, at least 44 states, plus the District, said they cannot or will not comply with all or part of the commission’s request for extensive information on voter rolls, like the names of all registrants, addresses, dates of birth including partial Social Security numbers and party affiliation of registered voters.
Republicans such as Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan, have called the commission’s request a “hastily organized experiment,” and Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, described it as “federal intrusion and overreach.”
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, EPIC, a Washington-based nonprofit focusing on the privacy and civil liberties issues, had asked a federal court for a temporary restraining order to stop the commission from collecting state voter roll data, earlier this month.
EPIC claims the panel is in violation of the E-government Act of 2002 that requires all agencies to complete and publicly release a Privacy Impact Assessment, detailing the type of information being collected, what the information is being used for, how it will be protected and whether it will be disclosed to others, before collecting personal information electronically.
But the commission claimed Monday that it doesn’t have to follow those laws because it’s not a federal agency.
Other prominent nonprofits that have sued the commission are The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU and the D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Despite the widespread concerns, Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and vice chairman of President Trump's voter fraud panel, said that many states are complying. “At present, only 14 states and the District of Columbia have refused the Commission’s request for publicly available voter information.”
Trump has repeatedly insisted that Hillary Clinton’s margin of almost 3 million votes over him in the popular vote was because of voter fraud. In a tweet late November, he said: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Mike Pence, the vice president and chair of the commission first announced the commission in January after Trump's unfounded claims of voter fraud in the 2016 election.
Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and vice chairman of President Trump's voter fraud panel, also claimed there was significant voter fraud in the U.S. elections. However, he later conceded that despite the commission, “We may never know the answer” to which candidate won the popular vote in the 2016 election.