Trump voting commission criticized for lack of transparency

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 19: Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach and US Vice President Mike Pence, attend the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, on July 19, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

President Donald Trump's advisory commission on election integrity has integrity questions of its own — with some of its own members raising concerns about its openness.

This past week, two members fired off letters to commission staff complaining about a lack of information about the panel's agenda and demanding answers about its activities. That comes as Democratic U.S. senators are requesting a government investigation of the commission for ignoring formal requests from Congress.

The criticism from the commissioners was remarkable because it came from insiders — the very people who are supposed to be privy to its internal discussions and plans.

In a letter sent Oct. 17, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said it was clear he was not being made aware of information pertaining to the commission. He requested copies of all correspondence between commission members since Trump signed the executive order creating it in May.

"I am in a position where I feel compelled to inquire after the work of the commission upon which I am sworn to serve, and am yet completely uninformed as to its activities," Dunlap wrote in his letter to Andrew Kossack, the commission's executive director.

He said he had received no information about the commission's research or activities since its last meeting, on Sept. 12. He also said he continued to receive media inquiries about commission developments "that I as a commissioner am blind to."

A commissioner from Alabama, Jefferson County Probate Judge Alan L. King, said he sent a similar letter late last week. He said the only information he has received since the commission's meeting more than a month ago was an email informing him of the death of a fellow commissioner, former Arkansas state lawmaker David Dunn.

"Here I am on this high-level government committee, and I don't know when the next meetings are or how many meetings there will be," he said in a telephone interview. "I am in the dark on what will happen from this point on, to tell you the truth."

King and Dunlap are two of four Democrats on the 11-member commission.

Requests for comment sent to Kossack, the commission's executive director, and the commission's vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, were not returned.

J. Christian Adams, a commission member who was a Justice Department attorney under former President George W. Bush, said in an email that all commissioners were receiving the same information.

"Once upon a time election integrity was bipartisan," Adams said in the email. "Apparently not all agree. That's a shame."

The commission has stirred controversy from the moment it was established last spring. Critics say Trump is using it to find support for his unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud that cost him the popular vote during the 2016 election. Democrat Hillary Clinton received 2.8 million more votes nationwide than Trump.

While there have been isolated cases of voter fraud in the U.S., there is no evidence of it being a widespread problem, as Trump suggests.

Critics argue the commission is stacked with people who favor voting restrictions, rather than those who want to expand access, and that the commission has a predetermined agenda that will result in recommendations making it more difficult for people to register to vote, stay registered and cast ballots.

Its first significant action was to request a wide range of information about all registered voters in every state, including partial Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses and voting history. The commission scaled back its response after stinging criticism. A tally by Associated Press reporters nationwide shows that 15 states denied the request, raising questions about how useful the information will be.

In August, the AP filed a records request with the commission under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The law specifies that agencies — including presidential commissions — have 20 business days to respond or 10 calendar days if the request was filed on an expedited basis, as the AP's was. To date, the AP has received no response from the commission despite multiple attempts to get one.

The commission's secrecy prompted a lawsuit by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which alleges the commission is violating federal open meetings and disclosure laws.

The group's executive director, Kristen Clarke, said she was hard-pressed to think of another commission that had acted in such secrecy.

"We have found that, in every respect, this commission has been carrying out its activities in an almost covert fashion," she said.

The lack of openness even applies to members of Congress.

Democratic senators have filed at least five separate requests for information with the commission since June, and a Sept. 12 follow-up letter noted that none of those had received a response.

"The Commission has not responded to a single letter from Senators with oversight jurisdiction over the Commission and continues to be rebuked for its questionable activities," said the letter by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Last week, a group of three Democratic senators wrote the Government Accountability Office seeking an investigation into the commission because of its lack responsiveness and transparency. The letter signed by Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Klobuchar cited a lack of transparency on the commission and concern that its conclusions would diminish confidence in the democratic process.

"It is incredible that they are not responding to any of this stuff, and that's why it's appropriate for GAO to take a look," Bennet said in an interview.