By Bryan Lowry And Hunter Woodall
President Donald Trump has dissolved a commission intended to investigate voter fraud after a massive data request by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach led to a backlash from state officials across the political spectrum.
The White House announced the dissolution of the panel late Wednesday, citing resistance from states about complying with the commission. Kobach, the commission's vice chairman, had sought personal information on every voter in the nation in June, a massive data request that spurred multiple lawsuits and backlash from state officials from across the political spectrum.
Many states had refused to comply with the request, citing privacy concerns, and even Kansas could not legally provide the commission with partial Social Security numbers as Kobach requested.
"Despite substantial evidence of voter fraud, many states have refused to provide the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity with basic information relevant to its inquiry," the commission's spokesman said in a statement. "Rather than engage in endless legal battles at taxpayer expense, today I signed an executive order to dissolve the Commission, and have asked the Department of Homeland Security to review these issues and determine next courses of action."
Trump's decision to form the commission in May and appoint Kobach led to immediate opposition from voting rights advocates, who accused Trump of trying to justify his unsubstantiated claims that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote in 2016. Kobach, who has championed stricter voting laws, has promoted the notion of widespread voting by noncitizens for several years despite little evidence.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement that the entire point of the commission had been to "enable voter suppression" and promote "bigoted delusions of widespread voter fraud."
Kobach, who advised Trump throughout the 2016 campaign and served on his transition team, had advised Trump on making changes to the National Voter Registration Act that would enable states to make additional requirements on voters, according to documents that were unsealed as part of a federal lawsuit against Kobach's office last year.
Kobach, who is is running for Kansas governor in 2018, blamed a "barrage of meritless lawsuits" for the dissolution of the commission. He said more than eight organizations were mounting legal challenges to the commission.
"I'm not sure what the total is up to," he said Wednesday evening. "All trying to stop the commission in its tracks."
One of the lawsuits even came from one of the commissioners, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat who alleged Kobach and other Republicans on the panel were withholding information about the commission's business from him.
Kobach said that he would remain in close contact with the White House and the Department of Homeland Security as that agency begins to investigate the issue instead of the commission. He said Trump made the final decision to disband the commission Wednesday after multiple weeks of discussion on the matter. DHS was chosen because the agency oversees immigration and can come up with an accurate estimate of the number of noncitizens on voter rolls, Kobach said.
"This is a tactical shift by the president who remains very committed to finding the scope of voter fraud," said Kobach, the architect of a controversial law that requires Kansas voters to provide their birth certificates or other proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. "In a perfect world, the commission would've moved swiftly and there wouldn't be any lawsuits."
His critics celebrated the decision to end the commission.
Critics saw the commission as part of a conservative campaign to strip minority voters and poor people from the voter rolls, and to justify unfounded claims made by Trump that voter fraud cost him the popular vote in 2016.
Past studies have found voter fraud to be exceptionally rare.
"The Kobach Commission is meeting its well-deserved demise," said Dale Ho, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, which successfully fought to unseal Kobach's presentation to Trump last year.
"We have real problems when it comes to elections: low voter turnout, unnecessary barriers to participation, outdated and insecure machines, and possible foreign interference," Ho said in an email.
"But rather than address these real threats to elections integrity, the Commission engaged in a wild goose chase for voter fraud, demonizing the very American voters whom we should all be helping to participate -- with the not-so-secret goal of making voting harder with unnecessary barriers."
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat and one of the first state election officials to buck the request, said in a statement that it "is no surprise that a commission founded on a lie of widespread voter fraud proved to be a fraud itself. This is why I, and so many other Secretaries of State refused to legitimize this sham commission by refusing to comply with its unprecedented request for private voter data."
Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who now runs the voting rights group Let America Vote, called the commission un-American in a statement. "President Trump won't stop lying about voter fraud, or end his assault on voting rights, but today is a good day for democracy," Kander said.
In addition to voting rights advocates, Kobach's rivals for the Kansas governor's mansion seized on his very public setback on a national stage.
"The great majority of Kris Kobach's political career... has been devoted to political stunt-making," said former state Rep. Mark Hutton, a Wichita Republican running for governor. "We're all against voter fraud, but the answer doesn't lie in appearances on national cable TV shows or hyped-up Beltway commissions. Kobach's stunt accomplished nothing other than further tarnishing the image of our good state."
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said the decision didn't look very good for Kobach.
"He's running for governor and one of the highest profile jobs he's had in his career was just disbanded," he said. "So that's not very flattering."
The commission was starting to look like a bit of an embarrassment, Beatty said, citing the lawsuits and other controversies with the commission.
"Ironically, what was to be a feather in Kobach's cap is now looking like it's a detriment to his gubernatorial campaign," Beatty said. "Not just because it was disbanded, but because it's brought about a lot of questions about his crosscheck program and the security of it."
Kansas state Rep. Keith Esau, an Olathe Republican who is running to succeed Kobach as secretary of state, defended the commission's request for information and blamed the media for the furor over the commission's work.
"It would be very hard for the committee as it was currently implemented to be able to do its job because of the press that its received," Esau said. "At this point I think the committee would have ended up being unable to do the job that it was tasked to do just because, no matter what they came up with, it wasn't going to be viewed objectively. Everything they did was viewed politically and not objectively."
The Associated Press, The Star's Hunter Woodall and Anita Kumar of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report
(c)2018 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)