President Trump warned Wednesday about the dangers of voter fraud but told a panel he launched to study the issue that it should follow the facts wherever they lead, and that “no conclusions” have been drawn about what they will find.
“Every time voter fraud occurs it cancels out the vote of a lawful citizen and undermines democracy,” Trump said during an appearance before the inaugural meeting of the panel. “We can’t let that happen. Any form of illegal or fraudulent voting, whether by noncitizens or the deceased, and any form of voter suppression or intimidation must be stopped.”
The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity was spawned by Trump’s repeated and unsubstantiated claims that illegal voting cost him the popular vote against Hillary Clinton last year. Vice President Pence, who Trump tapped to chair the 12-member panel, presided over the group’s first meeting Wednesday at the White House complex.
During his brief remarks, Trump repeatedly characterized the group as a “bipartisan panel” — it includes seven Republicans and five Democrats — and said it is engaging in “very, very important work.”
“If we want to make American great again, we have to protect the integrity of the vote and our voters,” Trump said.
Pence and the panel’s vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, are both Republicans. Pence promised a “healthy and robust debate” in the months ahead.
“This commission, let me be clear, has no preconceived notions or preordained results,” Trump said. “We’re fact-finders.”
Even before its first meeting, the commission had prompted intense controversy. A request for massive amounts of voter data from the states late last month was met with stiff resistance, even from many Republican-led states, and prompted multiple lawsuits.
The suits accuse the panel of breaching the privacy of tens of millions of Americans and offering no indication of what it plans to do with the data, including home addresses, dates of birth and partial Social Security numbers.
Trump said he’s pleased that more than 30 states agreed to provide information as allowed under their respective state laws. He said the other states should be more forthcoming.
“If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they are worried about,” Trump said. “And I ask the vice president, I ask the commission, what are they worried about? There’s something, there always is.”
Trump said the issue of election integrity is key to him because voters talked to him a lot about it during the campaign.
“This issue is very important to me because throughout the campaign, and even after, people would come up to me and express their concerns about voter inconsistencies and irregularities,” he said.
The commission has also drawn flak for posting on its website last week hundreds of comments it had received about its work — almost all of them negative and some laced with profanity — and drew criticism for not redacting, in some cases, the email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers and employers of those weighing in.
The panel’s Republicans include several members — Kobach chief among them — who have long crusaded against election voter fraud, including voters registered in multiple states and undocumented immigrants on the voting rolls. Critics accuse them of trying to suppress the vote.
In recent years, Kobach has become an outspoken critic of the U.S. voting system and claimed that voting fraud is rampant.
On Kobach’s office wall in Topeka is a framed copy of a voting law he helped craft, the 2011 Secure and Fair Elections Act, which requires citizens who register to vote using the state voter form to provide certain proof-of-citizenship documents, such as a birth certificate or a passport. Those with incomplete voter registration applications are removed from the rolls after 90 days and must try to re-register. In the past couple of years, he has pushed for other states to require similar proof of citizenship.
During introductory remarks, one commissioner, Hans von Spakovsky, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a Fox News Channel commentator, complained of unfair criticism that has been directed at the commission.
Von Spakovsky said he and other commissioners have been subject to “vicious and defamatory attacks” by those trying to avoid substantive debate on an important issue.
He cited a database maintained by Heritage showing 1,071 documented instances of voter fraud across the country.
One of the Democratic members of the panel, Alan L. King, a probate judge in Jefferson County, Ala., told his commissioners that he had seen no evidence of fraud in his jurisdiction.
King, who serves as his county’s chief election official, said he’d like to see the commission focus on keeping up with current technology on election equipment.
While the commission meeting was getting underway, civil liberties and voting advocates were offering a running stream of critical commentary on Twitter.
Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, posted on Twitter that while Trump was suggesting that states not participating in the commission have something to hide, the voting commission “fails to make all of its [documents and meetings] open to the public.” Ho also noted that Pence said the commission had already begun its work, and asked: “What are they hiding?”
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, criticized Trump for his remarks about the states not handing over voter data to the commission, writing on Twitter that the panel’s requests were “such federal overreach.”
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.