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Trump’s “election integrity” commission faces a new controversy: a lawsuit from one of its own

A Democrat on Trump’s voter commission asked for updates. He was ignored. Now he’s suing.

Voters! Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

The presidential commission tasked with proving that voter fraud is a major problem in American elections is being sued by one of its own members.

On Thursday, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, one of four Democrats appointed to the 11-member Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the commission is intentionally keeping information away from him and other Democrats on the panel. In the lawsuit, Dunlap charges that the commission, which is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, is in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972, a measure that requires presidential advisory committees to share information with its members and maintain a politically balanced roster.

“The Commission has, in effect, not been balanced because Secretary Dunlap and the other Democratic commissioners have been excluded from the Commission’s work,” the lawsuit states. “The Commission’s operations have not been open and transparent, not even to the commissioners themselves, who have been deprived access to documents prepared by and viewed by other commissioners."

The voter commission was formed by an executive order issued by President Donald Trump earlier this year “in order to promote fair and honest Federal elections.” As ProPublica notes, the panel has only met twice since being created, but has racked up a number of lawsuits in its short time of operation (Dunlap’s suit is the ninth official lawsuit against the commission), many of them concerned with the commission’s lack of transparency and fears that voter information will be compromised. In October, Dunlap expressed concerns that the commission was prematurely wrapping up its activities after its second meeting, telling the Washington Post, “For all I know, we may never meet again.”

After Dunlap’s lawsuit was announced, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican currently serving as the commission’s vice chair, said in a statement that the lack of updates about the commission was not due to deliberate avoidance, but was instead due to a pause in the commission’s activity as it deals with several lawsuits. “Secretary Dunlap's lawsuit is baseless and paranoid,” Kobach said. “He assumes that correspondence regarding Commission business was occurring, but not being shared with him. Dunlap's assumption is incorrect.” In a separate statement, the commission’s executive director added that the lawsuit “has no merit and we look forward to refuting it in court.”

But there’s a reason the suit is getting so much attention: Dunlap’s allegations, and the level of partisan stonewalling alleged in his suit, speak to a longstanding fear held by voting rights advocates: that Trump’s voter commission is little more than a vehicle for future voter suppression efforts.

Trump’s voter commission hasn’t been very transparent, and Democrats on the panel worry they are being frozen out

The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity has long been connected to one issue: voter fraud. Prior to announcing the commission, President Trump repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election, enabling his opponent Hillary Clinton to win the popular vote. Parts of that argument have been backed by Kobach, who cast doubt on the election result in July when he told MSNBC, “we may never know” if voter fraud tipped the popular vote in Clinton’s favor.

Those claims, coupled with the controversial previous actions of some members on the commission, have fueled worries that the commission will be used to validate tighter voting laws — measures that have been shown to disproportionately affect turnout among the minority voting blocs, which tend to support Democrats. Pence, for example, has been accused of supporting the suppression of African-American voters. During his time as governor of Indiana, state police raided the offices of a group that works to register minority voters in the state, preventing them from registering additional voters prior to Indiana’s 2016 election registration deadline.

Kobach, who is juggling his role on the commission with a 2018 gubernatorial campaign, has proven particularly controversial, with the ACLU referring to him as the “king of voter suppression” due to his efforts to purge voter rolls in Kansas. Other members of the panel have pursued efforts to purge state voter rolls or encourage tougher voter measures at the federal level. In the nearly six months that the commission has existed, it has managed to rack up some 17 legal actions aimed at its operations, membership, and requests for voter information.

Pence has maintained that the voter commission is bipartisan in nature. But Dunlap’s lawsuit argues that “the Commission’s superficial bipartisanship has been a façade.” Dunlap notes that, prior to making a controversial request for state voter data in July, Kobach solicited input from J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky, two alums of the George W. Bush Justice Department and supporters of tougher voting restrictions, well before either man was appointed to the commission.

Dunlap also notes that in an email forwarded to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and sent months before the commission’s creation, von Spakovsky suggested Democrats and “mainstream Republican officials and/or academics” be excluded from the commission’s membership.

Democratic commissioners expressed concerns that they are being frozen out of the process last month, when Dunlap and another of the commission’s Democrats wrote to the panel’s executive director. They were requesting information about what type of research is being conducted by the panel’s staff and when the commission plans on reporting its findings to Trump. It appears that those requests went unanswered, further fueling the belief that the commission is working toward a predetermined end.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if this whole commission was set up and they had an end result in mind when this commission was first originated,” Alan King, an Alabama probate judge and one of the Democratic commission members who sent a letter requesting information, told the Huffington Post.

In a few months, the commission will be under investigation

Dunlap’s lawsuit is just the latest bit of bad news for Trump’s election commission. On October 25, the Government Accountability Office said it would look into the commission’s funding and operations. The investigation announcement came after Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), requested an investigation into the panel, arguing that the group had failed to be transparent about its activities and had not responded to prior requests for information.

The GAO’s investigation comes with a big catch: The watchdog group says that due to staffing limitations, it won’t start digging into the commission for about five months. For critics of the voter commission, the investigation could finally offer insight into a body that has been controversial since its inception. But that insight could come after the commission submits its recommendations — which voting rights advocates worry will support stricter voting laws — to the president.