Democrats on Trump’s voting commission iced out since first meeting

Commissioners tell ThinkProgress it's "unusual" that they've had virtually no communication with the panel.

Vice President Mike Pence, left, accompanied by Vice-Char Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, right, speaks during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Vice President Mike Pence, left, accompanied by Vice-Char Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, right, speaks during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

When President Trump announced the formation of his Commission on Election Integrity in May, the White House said the group would “study vulnerabilities in voting systems” and “utilize all available data” in order to strengthen elections. But several Democrats serving on the bipartisan panel said they have had no voting-related communication and have been assigned no tasks since they first met in July.

“I have not received much information nor been working on much,” West Virginia county clerk Mark Rhodes told ThinkProgress on Tuesday, clarifying that by “much,” he meant anything at all.

Rhodes said commission chair Mike Pence and vice-chair Kris Kobach, Kansas’ Republican secretary of state, have given him no information about what he is supposed to be doing between meetings, and he has no idea if the co-chairs or Republican members are hard at work without Democratic input. “I honestly don’t know because I haven’t spoken to anybody else that’s on the committee,” he said.

Since the initial July 19th meeting, Kobach himself has been busy as commission co-chair. On July 26, he followed up his controversial letter requesting a massive amount of voter data from all 50 states — a request that was at least partially rejected by 44 states — with a second letter addressing the backlash and requesting publicly available voter information. Still Rhodes heard nothing.

“I’ve just been reading some articles and studies and things of that nature on my own,” he said. “Nothing assigned by the chairs.”

The only communication he has received has been regarding plans for the next meeting — Rhodes said the commissioners have been told to keep September 12th free. At that time, he hopes the co-chairs will have collected and analyzed voter data from the states so the panel can compare the numbers and begin its work.

Rhodes is one of 12 members of the commission that includes five Democrats and seven Republicans. Democratic member David Dunn also told ThinkProgress that the commission hasn’t “had a lot of communication.”

“The only information I have received was at the first meeting. Nothing else,” Dunn, a former Arkansas state legislator and government affairs lobbyist, said in an email Tuesday. “I did get an email that said to hold Sept. 12 open for another meeting. Nothing else.”

A third Democratic commissioner, Maine’s Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, told ThinkProgress that has received the same amount of information as Rhodes and Dunn. “I’ve had no more communication than them,” he said.

Dunlap also does not know if Republican members are studying any voting systems or data without input from Democrats. He said he finds it “unusual” that more than a month has gone by and he hasn’t been asked to do anything.

If any voting-related work is being conducted, it’s likely being done by Pence or Kobach, who worked without commission input when he sent a follow-up letter requesting voter data from states. Dunlap said at the time the second request for data went out that commissioners had not discussed the letter before Kobach sent it to all 50 states.

A representative for Kobach did not respond to a request for comment. Marc Lotter, the vice president’s press secretary, told ThinkProgress Tuesday that “the work continues,” but would not comment directly on why the Democrats haven’t received any communication other than logistical planning.

“I know information is going out,” he said. “There’s constant [mumble] to all the members, the work continues, and we will see them again at their next meeting here next month.”

Lotter clarified that he meant constant “communication,” contradicting the three Democratic members, and said the commissioners will “get updated on the work as it is continuing during its next meeting.” He would not say whether the co-chairs or Republicans had been conducting work without Democratic input.

“The next meeting is being scheduled as we speak,” he said. “We’ll get an update on all the relevant materials moving forward.”

It’s not difficult to imagine that Pence and Kobach are working without input from Democratic commissioners to push for voter purges or similar efforts to make it harder for people to vote. Both men have long histories when it comes to suppressing votes and advocating for policies like photo ID laws or the use of cross-check systems that result in qualified Americans being blocked from the polls.

Trump administration agencies are also working alongside the co-chairs to keep the commission’s work secret. After its Freedom of Information Act requests went unanswered, the Brennan Center for Justice announced Monday it had filed a lawsuit in federal court to compel the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of Management and Budget to disclose information pertaining to the commission. The advocacy group argues that the public is legally entitled to know about the group’s operations, methods, and intentions.

“When the public is not able to oversee the work of a presidential panel like this, there is a risk of abuse, which could negatively impact voting rights across the country,” Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said in a statement.

According to the president’s May executive order, the panel will “spend the next year completing its work and issue a report in 2018.”