Voting-rights advocates lambasted a new Trump administration directive to probe alleged election fraud, calling the effort a distraction that also could ultimately prevent legitimate voters from casting ballots.
President Donald Trump signed the executive order Thursday creating a commission, led by Vice President Mike Pence, to study the U.S. voter registration and election system. It comes months after Trump alleged, without evidence, that thousands of noncitizens had voted in the 2016 elections.
Even many Republicans have said such a commission is an unnecessary use of government resources because numerous other studies show no indication of widespread election fraud.
Critics of the new Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity said the administration ought to focus instead on voter suppression concerns as well as potential Russian hacking and interference in the 2016 elections, a scandal that has only intensified this week with Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.
“This is a sham commission that is going to be distracting us, distracting our country from very real problems that we should be confronting,” said Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center for Justice. “We need to be vigilant and rely on the evidence and the data.”
The Brennan Center at New York University’s School of Law recently issued a report after studying 42 jurisdictions with the most noncitizen residents, concluding that such instances of fraud are “extraordinarily rare,” Pérez said.
Critics of Trump’s commission also said they were concerned that its leaders, Pence and vice chairman Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, may have too much sway over the bipartisan panel.
“I do think that it is problematic to set up a commission headed by two Republicans if you want it to have credibility,” said Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic member of the Federal Election Commission. “This whole topic has been studied in great depth, and nobody’s come up with any real evidence of voter fraud.”
A concern, Weintraub said, is that “voter fraud allegations have been used in the past as a pretext for adopting measures that restrict people’s ability to vote. That’s the real fraud we ought to be worried about — disenfranchising people.”
Other members of the commission are expected to include Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, a Republican who in the mid-2000s sponsored a strict voter identification law in her state. Democratic members include New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.
The executive order tasked the commission with identifying laws and rules that “undermine the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting process” and with exposing vulnerabilities in the voting system “that could lead to improper voter registration and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registration and fraudulent voting.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday the administration expects the commission to complete its report by 2018.
“The experts and officials on this commission will follow the facts where they lead,” she told reporters. “Meetings and hearings will be open to the public for comments and input. And we will share those updates as we have them.”
Election lawyers said that it was notable that the president did not ask the commission to similarly evaluate cases of alleged voter suppression.
“This is not a good day for those who believe we should have a system where all eligible voters, but only eligible voters, can easily cast a ballot that will be fairly and accurately counted,” election lawyer Rick Hasen wrote on his blog.
Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters, said the executive branch should focus on protecting the U.S. election system from future foreign hacking incidents.
“The real purpose of this effort is to justify President Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 elections,” Carson said. “This is part of a wider effort to suppress the vote, keep certain politicians in power, and undermine our elections by spreading falsehoods.”
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, added in a statement: “This executive order is a farce, plain and simple, and a seemingly naked attempt by President Trump to divert attention from his firing of FBI Director James Comey and the very serious investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election. No one should be fooled.”