By Colin Woodard
Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap has filed a federal lawsuit against President Trump's voter fraud commission in an effort to obtain information and correspondence about the commission's work.
Dunlap, one of four Democrats on the 11-member Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, filed the lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, more than three weeks after requesting the information. Despite the fact that he is a member of the commission, Dunlap says he has been kept in the dark about what it is doing.
The suit alleges that the commission's chairman, Vice President Mike Pence, and vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, are in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which prohibits the body from excluding commissioners from deliberations and information. The Executive Office of the President is also a named defendant, as the office is staffing the commission and maintaining its records.
"Since the Sept. 12 meeting, I have received no correspondence from the commission other than to acknowledge receipt of my information request" of October 17, Dunlap said in a prepared statement. "Clearly, there is information about this commission being created and discussed, but I have no access to that information and it has not been provided upon request."
Dunlap said his goal in filing the lawsuit is to bring the commission into compliance with federal law, which would allow him to fulfill his role on the commission and participate in providing a report to the president. He told the Press Herald he decided to send his Oct. 17 records request after learning from a reporter that a commission staffer had been arrested and charged with possession of child pornography. Dunlap said he hadn't even been aware that the staffer, Ronald Williams II, had been hired.
"I was like: I need to know what's happening, what we're working on," he said in an interview Thursday. "So I sent the letter and heard nothing for about 10 days, and then they acknowledged the letter and said they have to review my request with counsel! And I sent a couple more emails and said, 'I just want to know what we're doing. I'm not trying to get the nuclear codes or anything.'"
"It's time to press this point," he added. "If we are going to be a commission, we need to act as commission."
The commission's executive director, Andrew Kossack, did not respond to a request for comment.
Election experts said the situation is highly unusual.
"I can't recall a single instance of a presidential advisory commission being sued by one of its members," said David Becker, former director of the elections program at the Pew Charitable Trusts and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research in Washington, D.C. "What he is basically saying is, 'Please keep me and the rest of the commissioners in the loop.' It's a very modest request from a very well respected secretary of state who I know has been trying to work very constructively with this commission and has received criticism for even participating."
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a public interest nonprofit that has sued the commission for allegedly violating federal public records law, said Dunlap's suit is "virtually unprecedented" and underscores "the chaotic and dysfunctional nature" of the body.
"That its own members are in the dark on the way that the Commission operates and deliberates makes clear that this Commission is no more than a tool to advance this administration's voter suppression agenda," Clarke said via email. "As we continue our ongoing litigation against the administration, we look forward to watching Secretary Dunlap's suit which will most certainly expose additional evidence of the Commission's unlawfulness."
The president of Common Cause, the government accountablity nonprofit, said in a statement Thursday that Dunlap's lawsuit "removes a shred of legitimacy the Pence-Kobach Commission has tried to cling" since its inception.
"This commission has been a sham from the moment it was created and a waste of tax dollars, said president Karen Hobert Flynn. "It is disgraceful that a presidential commission was ever assembled to try to justify laws that strip Americans of the right to vote without cause and solely for political ends. The commission should be shut down immediately."
A second Democratic member of the commission, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner, told the Press Herald Thursday that he also has not received any communications from the commission since the Sept. 12 meeting that he himself had hosted in Manchester, New Hampshire.
"I don't know anything more than Matt," Gardner said from his office in Concord. "That might be because of these law suits they are dealing with, and I'm putting the best light on this that I can."
Gardner said he has even been unable to provide the voter registration lists the commission had requested because the commission staff has not responded to his inquiries about how and where to securely file them electronically.
"I'm still hopeful," Gardner said. "I will be really disappointed if we don't get a chance to get the facts and information that will lead us to whatever conclusions we could make."
The Federal Advisory Committee Act requires that all commissioners receive equal information about the commission's work, Dunlap said, but he has not been privy to any discussions related to meeting materials, witness invitations, goals or outreach.
At its meetings, Kobach and Pence have made it clear that the commission -- set up by Trump to probe his evidence-free claims that millions of illegal voters had cost him the popular vote in 2016 -- will focus almost entirely on voter fraud, a problem numerous studies and probes by administrations of both parties have shown is extremely rare, and will not address the systematic intrusion of state election infrastructure by Russia, a problem about which Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent, has been especially vocal.
A 2011 voter fraud probe in Maine by Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers found just one instance of fraud. Nationally, numerous voter fraud investigations have concluded the problem is vanishingly small, with one study by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt finding just 31 credible allegations of identity fraud in all primary, general, special and municipal elections between 2000 and 2014, despite over a billion votes being cast.
Dunlap has said he joined the commission with an open mind and will act as a whistleblower if it engages in partisan shenanigans, but he has become much more critical of the body's approach over the past month, saying many of his colleagues appear to define "voter fraud" to include legitimate voting by people they don't want to see vote, such as college students.
(c)2017 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)