President Donald Trump's commission on voter fraud is getting primed for its first meeting in July, and, in a move it called part of its organizational preparation, it requested from the 50 states all publicly available voter roll data.
The letter immediately enraged liberals and Democrats, not to mention a few conservatives, as well as many states.
Trump created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity by executive order in May. It is chaired by vice-president Mike Pence.
Opponents of the request say the administration is seeking to create a national voter file it can use to suppress voters, and that virtually no voter fraud exists. Supporters say there is ample evidence of fraud.
On June 28, Pence held an organizational call with members of the commission. The vice president said he reiterated Trump's charge to the commission to produce a set of recommendations to increase the American people's confidence in the integrity of the election process.
"The integrity of the vote is a foundation of our democracy, and this bipartisan commission will review ways to strengthen that integrity in order to protect and preserve the principle of one person, one vote," Pence told commission members.
The commission set July 19 as its first meeting. During the conference call the commission vice chairman and Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach told members a letter would be sent to the 50 states and District of Columbia requesting publicly available data from state voter rolls, as well as feedback on how to improve election integrity.
By the beginning of this week, most states had received the letter. In it, Kobach explained that the commission was charged with studying the registration and voting processes used in federal elections and submitting a report to the president identifying laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that enhance or undermine the American people's confidence in the integrity of federal elections' processes.
To enable the commission to fully analyze vulnerabilities and issues related to voter registration and voting, Kobach said he was requesting the publicly available voter roll data, "including, if publicly available under the laws of your state, the full first and last names of all registrants, middle names or initials if available, addresses, dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number, if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information."
Kobach also asked the states for their input.
"As the commission begins it work, I invite you to contribute your views and recommendations throughout this process," he wrote.
Among the things Kobach said he wanted to know was: What changes, if any, to federal election laws would they recommend to enhance the integrity of federal elections? How could the commission support state and local election administrators with regard to information technology security and vulnerabilities? What laws, policies, or other issues hinder their ability to ensure the integrity of elections they administer?
Kobach also wanted to know if the states had any evidence or information regarding instances of voter or registration fraud in the state, as well as information on convictions for election-related crimes that had occurred in the state since the November 2000 federal election.
Finally, Kobach asked for recommendations for preventing voter intimidation or disenfranchisement, as well as any other ideas they may have.
In Wisconsin, Michael Haas, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said the presidential commission could purchase any publicly available data, just as anybody else could.
"By law, most of the information in Wisconsin's voter registration system is public and is available for purchase, and is commonly purchased by political parties, candidates, researchers, and other organizations," Haas said. "A voter's name, address, and voting history are public, and this information has already been provided to campaigns and other requestors who have paid for it."
Haas said Wisconsin does not collect any information about a voter's political preference or gender.
"Wisconsin statutes do not permit the state to release a voter's date of birth, driver license number or Social Security number," he said. "State statutes permit the WEC to share confidential information in limited circumstances with law enforcement agencies or agencies of other states. The presidential commission does not appear to qualify under either of these categories."
The bottom line is, Haas said, state law did not give the commission any wiggle room.
"The WEC does not have the discretion to deny a request for the public information in the voter registration database if the required fee is paid," he said. "By administrative rule, the price is $12,500 for the entire statewide voter file, and Wisconsin law does not contain any provision for waiving the fee for voter data."
The reactions of various other states were mixed. Some said they were reviewing the request or had not yet received it. Some, such as Wisconsin, said they would turn over what state law allowed; others, some controlled by Democrats, rejected the request outright.
Some conservative states were balking, too.
Though he said he had not yet received the request, Mississippi secretary of state Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, said he already knew what his reply was going to be.
"They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from," Hosemann said. "Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our state's right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes."
Many conservatives were outraged because they consider the request out of bounds for the federal government, given states' jurisdiction over conducting elections.
In Wisconsin, liberals were quick to pounce. One Wisconsin Now called on Gov. Scott Walker to, in their words, protect Wisconsin voters' privacy from Donald Trump. The group said the commission had asked for sensitive personal information about registered voters, including portions of social security numbers, birth date, voting history, and any information about an individual's partisan political preference.
That's true, but the Kobach letter did point out that the request only extended to information releasable under state law.
One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross said Walker should refuse any request from the Trump administration for Wisconsin voter information not available to the public. Again, the Trump administration did not ask for such information.
"There is no way Donald Trump and his cabal can be trusted with one single voter's sensitive, personal information," Ross said. "And Gov. Walker needs to flat out reject this request to protect the integrity of our elections and the privacy of Wisconsin voters."
Ross said Trump established the commission after he made what Ross called a proven-false claim that voting impropriety resulted in his three million-plus popular vote loss.
Ross also criticized Kobach, whom he said worked to pass a law that was estimated to have prevented 20,000 state residents from being able to register to vote in 2014. Ross said the Kobach-backed law has been challenged in court and judges had enjoined enforcement of the anti-voter registration efforts.
The law Ross is referring to requires documentary proof of U.S. citizenship to register to vote, as well as a voter ID law; they have been challenged in court.
The One Wisconsin Now executive director also brought up the familiar theme of Russia, saying the FBI has an open investigation of possible collusion between Donald Trump's campaign and Russia.
"Donald Trump has brazenly lied about the election and his campaign is under federal investigation for possibly colluding with a hostile foreign nation that tried to hack into our election systems," Ross said. "This commission requesting our voters' information is headed by a guy who implemented a scheme, struck down by federal courts, to try to prevent thousands of people from being able to register to vote. There is no way in hell Gov. Walker should allow sensitive personal information about Wisconsin voters to be turned over to this gang."
In a letter to Haas, the League of Women Voters Wisconsin asked the state to deny portions of the request.
"Wisconsin statutes are clear on what information can and cannot be provided to individuals or organizations," wrote Andrea Kaminski, LWVW executive director. "(Wisconsin law) does not allow voters' date of birth, Social Security number, and other sensitive information to be shared with the public. Because the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity does not meet the exemptions under (under the law), information such as date of birth and Social Security numbers should not be provided."
Kaminski, foreshadowing Haas's own later statement, said the commission should be treated like any other organization requesting a voter registration list, where sensitive data is not provided, and they should be charged $12,500 for the file.
"We ask the Wisconsin Election Commission to protect sensitive voter information and abide by state statutes that govern this information," she wrote.
Et tu, Voter Fraud
The issue of voter fraud - and whether it really exists - is at the heart of the controversy, though a subtext of states' rights is bubbling in the current of the Trump administration's request.
But is there significant voter fraud? Democrats and the mainstream media consistently say studies show that there is no significant fraud.
Here's how CNN put it just this past week, in a story written by Tal Kopan: "As Kansas secretary of state, Kobach has been a leading voice nationally in trying to combat voter fraud, which studies have shown is statistically close to nonexistent."
It's true, some studies do show that; it's also true that other news reports and studies show something different.
Take Virginia, for instance.
In that state, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he had no intention of honoring the commission's request.
"Virginia conducts fair, honest, and democratic elections, and there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in Virginia," McAuliffe said. "This entire commission is based on the specious and false notion that there was widespread voter fraud last November. At best this commission was set up as a pretext to validate Donald Trump's alternative election facts, and at worst is a tool to commit large-scale voter suppression."
Yet in Virginia, the Richmond Times-Press reported last September, Harrisonburg officials and the FBI investigated allegations of voter registration fraud after officials said almost 20 voter applications were turned in under the names of dead people. The applications were turned in by a Democratic-affiliated voter registration group called HarrisonburgVOTES.
Just this past week, James Madison University political science senior Andrew Spieles admitted submitting the false registration forms - acting on his own, he said, not on behalf of the group - and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. He will spend at least 100 days in prison.
In this case, election officials recognized at least one of the names of the dead people Spieles tried to register and knew the person was dead. But conservatives say, without a national inquiry, it is impossible to know how many fraudulent attempts are occurring and how many are successful.
It's not just stray news stories, either. In 2012, the Pew Center on the States, hardly a conservative organization, recommended a serious upgrade for the nation's voter registration system. Here's what the center found:
"Research commissioned by the Pew Center on the States highlights the extent of the challenge: Approximately 24 million - one of every eight - voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate. More than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as voters. Approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state."
Earlier this month, James Snead of the conservative Heritage Foundation reported that the organization had updated its voter fraud database with 89 new entries, including 75 convictions and what he called a slew of overturned elections and civil fines targeting vote fraudsters.
"With these latest additions, the database now documents 581 cases of proven voter fraud and 848 criminal convictions," Snead reported. "Heritage's database proves not only that voter fraud is real and ongoing, but also that it is not isolated to any particular state or region."
With the addition of cases from Nebraska and Oklahoma, two states not previously in the database, Snead said Heritage has documented proof of electoral fraud in 47 states.
"This truly is a problem that spans the nation," Snead wrote. "The evidence is mounting, and it is incontrovertible - yet many liberals still refuse to acknowledge the gravity of the problem, or even admit that it exists at all. Voter fraud-deniers paint election integrity efforts as little more than smoke screens for 'voter suppression.'"
Their political games have consequences, Snead wrote.
"By opposing or seeking to overturn commonsense measures like voter identification laws and efforts to clean up outdated and inaccurate voter rolls in the states, liberals are actually making it much easier for fraudsters to steal votes and for corrupt politicians to rig elections and negate legitimate votes cast by eligible citizens - effectively disenfranchising them," he wrote. "How's that for irony?"
Here's another one for irony: The Heritage database has a familiar case from Wisconsin about one Robert Monroe, the most prolific multiple voter in state history, who turned out to be a supporter of Republicans.
"Robert Monroe, identified by prosecutors as the worst multiple-voter in state history, pleaded no contest to charges that he voted more than once in 2011 and 2012," the database states. "Monroe's record was extensive: He voted twice in the April 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court election, twice in the 2011 recall election of state Senator Alberta Darling, and five times in Gov. Scott Walker's recall election. He also cast an illegal ballot in the August 2012 primary, and voted twice in the 2012 general election. On four of the counts, Monroe received a suspended three-year prison sentence, and will serve up to a year in jail. He also received five years' probation, and was ordered to complete 300 hours of community service and pay a $5,000 fine."
Monroe used an insanity defense, which was rejected.
According to various media reports, Monroe was a supporter of Gov. Scott Walker and state Sen Alberta Darling.
But findings of voter fraud in Wisconsin also extend beyond media reports and single cases. For instance in 2008, the Milwaukee Police Department's Special Investigation Unit concluded that, in 2004, there was an "illegal organized attempt to influence the outcome of an election in the state of Wisconsin."
Wisconsin also has an ongoing issue with convicted felons improperly voting while still under state supervision. In 2014, for example, in an audit of potential felon voting, the GAB found 89 instances in which a voter's name and birth date were linked to a felon.
Of those, 56 were tossed for various reasons, such as state supervision having ended before Election Day. But 29 were referred for prosecution.
Of the 29 cases referred for prosecution, 18, or 62 percent, were from Milwaukee County, a Democratic stronghold.
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