Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach presided over much of the first meeting Wednesday of a controversial commission that President Donald J. Trump established to look into unfounded claims of massive voter fraud in the 2016 elections.
The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity met Wednesday despite calls from congressional Democrats for Kobach to be removed from the panel and despite an attempt by the American Civil Liberties Union to block it in court.
"The charge of the commission is a significant one, as the president outlined, to study the threats to the integrity of our elections, to quantify those threats if possible and, if it’s the will of the commission, to offer recommendations to the president to help ensure the integrity of future elections in this country," Kobach, who is vice chair of the commission, said in opening remarks.
The commission, which is officially chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, stirred controversy even before its first meeting when it sent letters to all 50 states seeking complete access to their voter rolls, a request that many states have refused to comply with.
Those lists include the names, addresses, party affiliation on voting history of every registered voter in the state, and in some cases even the last four digits of the voter's Social Security number.
Trump, who dropped in on the meeting to make opening remarks of his own, defended that request and lashed out at those states that are unwilling to comply.
"If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they are worried about," he said. "And I ask the vice president, I ask the commission, what are they worried about? There’s something, there always is."
Trump formed the commission in May after asserting several times, without evidence, that the reason he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 3 million ballots is because many non-U.S. citizens had illegally voted in the election.
Pence presided over the first half of the meeting, which mainly consisted of introductory remarks by the 12-member panel, and he insisted that the commission will look objectively at the evidence it receives.
"Let me be clear. This commission has no preconceived notions or preordained results," Pence said. "We are fact finders. And in the days ahead we will gather the relevant facts and data, and at the conclusion of our work we will present the president with a report of our findings."
Ironically, the first meeting of the commission took place against the backdrop of a widening federal investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials accused of trying to influence the election in Trump's favor.
Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat who also serves on the panel, suggested near the end of the meeting that the panel should coordinate its work with congressional investigators.
"In terms of communication, maybe we should include the Congress," he said. "I know they're doing some investigation of allegations about the involvement of the Russian Federation in some of our electoral systems. And maybe as they proceed with their investigations, to keep us apprised of their findings would be very helpful to this commission."
Kobach, who has gained national attention for his efforts to prevent noncitizens from voting, presided over the second half of the meeting, during which commissioners offered their thoughts about topics and issues the panel should focus on.
He suggested five major topics: accuracy of registration rolls; fraudulent voting; mail balloting and possible threats to election integrity that it poses; cyber security; and voter intimidation.
But Alan King, a county election official in Birmingham, Ala., said a bigger threat to the integrity of elections is the outdated equipment that many counties still use because they don't have the resources to replace it.
"If people can't vote because the machines don't work, we've got a massive, massive problem," he said. "In my opinion, we've got to address funding in a recommendation by the president to Congress."
Kobach is the defendant in a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that he championed in 2011 that requires all new voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register to vote. He is also the target of an ethics complaint filed recently by a Topeka resident over his handling of that case.
In a joint letter written Tuesday, four congressional Democrats asked Vice President Pence to remove Kobach from the commission, citing, among other things, what they called “false public statements about voter fraud and his use of his official position to further his political campaign for governor of Kansas.” The letter was signed by Reps. Elijah Cummings of Maryland; John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan; Bennie Thompson of Mississippi; and Robert Brady of Pennsylvania.