President Trump made three appointments on Wednesday to the commission that will investigate his unfounded claim that three to five million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election. All three new commissioners are Democrats with low profiles, and one told ThinkProgress he is not concerned that the group is being led by staunch Republicans who champion restrictive voting laws.
Mark Rhodes, a county clerk in Wood County, West Virginia, told ThinkProgress he’s not entirely sure why he was named to Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s Election Integrity Commission. He said he thinks West Virginia’s secretary of state recommended him because Pence and Kobach were looking for a Democratic county clerk, and “there’s not a whole lot of those in West Virginia.”
Prominent Democratic elections officials have said they will not participate in the commission, calling it a partisan attempt to back up Trump’s lie. DNC Chair Tom Perez called it a “Trump-sponsored propaganda factory” and voting rights experts like Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law say it’s a distraction from “actual threats to our democracy, such as ongoing voter suppression.”
But Rhodes said that the stated goal — maintaining election integrity — sounds important.
“This is for election integrity and I believe in the integrity of the election and I think that every county clerk in West Virginia does,” he said. “I guess I’d like to be on this team to review it and if there’s anything that I can do to help show that elections are honest, that’s my goal.”
Rhodes said he is proud that in his four years as clerk, he has never heard any claims of voter fraud, so he understands why the Trump administration would look to his county for advice.
“We try to keep our voter registration files current by checking death certificates, obituaries, everything of that nature,” he said. “We do what we can do to make sure the election is as up-and-up as possible.”
Ideally, Rhodes said he will be able to help the commission apply West Virginia’s election practices more widely across the country. He doesn’t think the focus will be on Trump’s facetious claim of voter fraud because he doesn’t think the evidence exists. But he said he’s willing to investigate to see if it does.
Meanwhile, Rhodes said he believes that Democrats aren’t always innocent and that his party also cries voter fraud after it loses elections.
According to the executive order Trump signed in May establishing the commission, the group will be tasked with studying “vulnerabilities” in the voting system and potential impacts on “improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations, and fraudulent voting.”
Studies show that voter fraud is virtually non-existent, and Trump has come up with no evidence to support his claim that illegal voters cost him the popular vote in November. But Rhodes said he is not concerned that the commission will turn into a witch hunt for alleged proof of fraud.
Even if the co-chairs recommend more restrictive voting laws, Rhodes said, it takes legislators and the courts to change and uphold the law.
Rhodes also said he thinks it’s important that the panel have representation from both parties, and that the commission will be open to investigating claims of voter suppression.
But how that will happen, or whether he would proactively ask the commission to investigate suppressive laws, is less clear. “I have to learn a lot more at this point in time before I can answer a lot of questions,” he said.
Though details are still uncertain, Rhodes said he believes the final commission will include six Democrats and six Republicans. So far, four Democrats have been named: Rhodes, former Arkansas state representative David Dunn, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, and New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner.
Though Gardner is a Democrat, he told ThinkProgress in February that he is open to investigators to look into claims from the Trump administration that thousands of out-of-state citizens cast ballots in New Hampshire, potentially handing the state to Hillary Clinton.
Of the commissioners named so far, Rhodes has the lowest profile. But he said his appointment is necessary because he has experience running elections.
“Most of them have never been actually in the precinct,” he said. “I think I bring a different perspective to this because I’ve worked in the precinct and I’ve run early voting. I’ve done all the legwork to get ready for an election, not just in theory but in reality.”
Rhodes said he has spoken to Kobach about his involvement, and said he expects Pence to be at the first meeting to outline the policies and procedures.
Neither of the two Republican co-chairs has provided information to the press about how the commission will function or whether it will have a budget or staff. Rhodes says he still has not been briefed on how often the group will meet or how it will conduct its investigation. According to Rhodes, Kobach hopes the commission will be able to produce a report within a year.