The year is 2017. Republicans won the White House and held control of both the Senate and House in the last election, but they’re worried about their future. Their president has abysmal approval ratings and is mired in controversy about his campaign’s connections to the Russian government. The 2018 midterms could bring a Democratic sweep, and 2020 could be even worse.
But not if the GOP, a party with a deep history of trying to suppress the vote, has anything to do with it.
Enter the White House’s Commission on Election Integrity.
Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump falsely claimed that three to five million people illegally voted in the 2016 election, potentially costing him the popular vote. He promised to launch a commission that would investigative that very problem.
In May, he signed an executive order following through on that promise. He named his vice president, Mike Pence, and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) to chair the panel. The team soon assembled a ragtag group of four additional Republicans and four Democrats to join them in their stated goal of looking for vulnerabilities in elections systems that could allow for “fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.”
Using the common but farcical rallying cry of “voter fraud,” the White House said it would check state voting rolls to look for inconsistencies. It wasn’t hard to read between the lines: Kobach was planning for a national voter purge, like the one he orchestrated in his own state. That effort in Kansas effectively kicked thousands of eligible voters of the rolls.
Even before it could get to work, the group was entangled in controversy. Kobach requested a massive amount of personal voter information from each state, and a vast majority of secretaries of states refused. The commission is also facing a bevy of lawsuits which accuse it of violating federal privacy laws, operating opaquely, and violating regulations aimed at paperwork reduction, among other allegations. Kobach himself is facing a suit claiming he’s exploiting his position to promote his campaign for Kansas governor.
The commissioners have also faced criticism. Prominent voting rights advocates question any Democrat’s decision to participate in the commission, which they say is “laying the groundwork for voter suppression.” Most of the Democrats that ended up joining have little election administration experience, and even they questioned why they were nominated for such a role.
For their part, the Republicans are some of the most notorious and discredited voter suppression advocates in the country. Together, they have tried to disenfranchise countless voters and have chipped away at the federal government’s civil rights protections.
Here is the full cast of the fraud squad, a crew that is fighting to protect you from a non-existent enemy:
Kris Kobach (R)
Commission co-chair and Kansas secretary of state
Power: One of the country’s foremost architects of voter suppression, Kobach has built a national reputation by raising false alarms about non-citizens voting, and pushing for laws to both prevent non-existent fraud and to make it harder for undocumented immigrants to come to the country at all. He has based his claim that millions of non-citizens cast ballots on studies with sample sizes as small as 14 people. Nevertheless, his signature legislation, signed into law in 2011, requires Kansans to show proof of citizenship — a birth certificate, passport, or naturalization papers — to register to vote. The ACLU claims the law has prevented tens of thousands of eligible citizens from registering to vote. In 2015, Kobach secured the ability to prosecute people for voter fraud — he is the only secretary of state in the country with that power.
Kryptonite: The law. Kobach has faced four ACLU lawsuits since he took office in 2011. In one legal challenge, the civil rights organization is seeking sanctions against Kobach and to make public a memo he wrote President Trump and then accidentally leaked to the press when he was photographed holding the loose pages without a folder.
Mike Pence (R)
Commission chair and vice president
Power: As vice president, Pence has Trump’s ear and plenty of influence through his own office. When it comes to voting, Pence has been accused of voter suppression after he let the Indiana state police raid the offices of a voter registration program that was helping African Americans register to vote. The results of the investigation have still not been released, so it’s unclear how many people were prevented from voting.
Kryptonite: With his administration mired in controversy about its connections to the Russian government, it’s still unclear how much Pence knew and when he found out about it. But as details unfold, Pence is unlikely to emerge unscathed. And he won’t dine alone with a woman.
Hans von Spakovsky (R)
Manager of the Election Law and Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation, former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, and former counsel to the assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush
Power: The myth of voting fraud can be largely attributed to von Spakovsky, who brought the non-issue into the popular Republican discourse. As the de facto head of the DOJ’s voting section under Bush, von Spakovsky spread the myth and used it to support measures that would make it harder to vote, like strict voter ID laws and purges of voter rolls. According to Slate, he “moved to overrule career attorneys who had determined that a Texas redistricting plan discriminated against minority voters, pushed for Georgia to be granted pre-clearance for a new voter ID law that was later declared unconstitutional, and shut down an investigation into a policy in Minnesota that prohibited Native Americans living on reservations from using tribal ID cards as voter identification.”
Kryptonite: According to the New Yorker, when Bush nominated him in 2006 to the FEC, six career lawyers in the DOJ’s voting section “wrote a scathing letter of protest, saying that he had a ‘cavalier’ disregard for legal precedent.” And in 2008, Paul DeGregorio, the vice chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, told investigators that “too many” of von Spakovsky’s decisions were “clouded by his partisan thinking,” according to Slate’s reporting.
Connie Lawson (R)
Indiana secretary of state
Power: Since 2012, Lawson has served as secretary of state of Indiana, the state that had the lowest voter participation rate in the nation in 2014. Last year, she worked with Pence in what voting advocates call a political effort to purge tens of thousands of voter registrations from the rolls. As a state senator earlier in her career, she championed a strict photo ID law.
Kryptonite: Though Lawson likes to rail against voter fraud, as of October, only two cases have been prosecuted in Indiana during her tenure.
Ken Blackwell (R)
Former Ohio secretary of state
Power: As Ohio secretary of state from 1999 to 2007, Blackwell worked to suppress tens of thousands of votes. “Voter fraud is the worst crime against democracy” he once said. In the 2004 election, he also served as co-chair of George W. Bush’s reelection committee — leading many to point out the obvious conflict of interest. That year, he allowed elections officials in Ohio’s major cities to purge from the rolls the names of more than 300,000 voters who did not cast ballots in the previous two national elections. In Cleveland, almost one in four voters were removed from the rolls between 2000 and 2004. He also sought to throw out registration forms that were not submitted on cardstock of 80-pound thickness.
Kryptonite: Blackwell believes that being gay is a “lifestyle” that “can be changed.”
Christy McCormick (R)
Commissioner on the Election Assistance Commission (EAC)
Power: A former DOJ voting section attorney, McCormick was appointed to the bipartisan EAC by President Obama in 2014. There, she quickly aligned herself with vote-suppressors like Kobach. Last year, she testified in support of the Kansas secretary of state in a lawsuit challenging a law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. The EAC had allowed the law, which originated in Kansas, to also be used in Alabama and Georgia. Last fall, a federal appeals court ruled against the EAC, blocking it from changing the federal voter registration form to allow Kansas, Alabama, and Georgia to require documentary proof of citizenship, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Kryptonite: The Fair Elections Legal Network filed a complaint with the Office of the Inspector General in early July, claiming that McCormick is violating a policy prohibiting EAC commissioners from being employed outside of the EAC.
Bill Gardner (D)
New Hampshire secretary of state
Power: One of the first Democrats named to the commission, Gardner told ThinkProgress in February that he does not know of any evidence to support the Trump administration’s claim that out-of-state voters were bused into his state to illegally cast ballots in November. But he didn’t entirely denounce the lie. Instead, he said he welcomes investigators to come to his state to determine whether the small number of fraudulent votes he has seen could mean there are many more that go unreported. “People say that if you get picked up for a DWI, you’ve probably done it at least ten times, maybe more,” he told ThinkProgress. “We don’t know how to quantify it… We have many races that are decided by less than five votes.”
Kryptonite: Despite almost every state expressing hesitations about the commission’s massive data request, Gardner defended Kobach’s letter. He told reporters that it will look like states are hiding evidence of fraud if they withhold information.
Matthew Dunlap (D)
Maine secretary of state
Power: For his part, Dunlap has been a critic of Trump’s lie about three to five million illegal votes cast. He told reporters at at the National Association of Secretaries of State conference last week that he “would be stunned to see a number anywhere near that.” Yet as voting rights advocates called for Democrats to boycott the commission, Dunlap signed on anyway.
Kryptonite: Dunlap announced recently that his state would not be providing his own commission with the data it requested. “By releasing this information, it could have a chilling effect on getting people to register to vote,” he said about the letter requesting information from states.
David K. Dunn (D)
Former Arkansas state representative
Power: Dunn served in the Arkansas state legislature from 2005 to 2011 and now works at a government-relations firm he founded. A southern Democrat, Dunn told ThinkProgress that he has seen no evidence of vote fraud in his state, so he’s unlikely to agree with Pence or Kobach. “I made it clear that if they want a yes person, I’m probably not the person they want to chose,” he said. “I don’t want to be part of any kind of propaganda. I’m not on a witch hunt.” He joined the commission because he said he thought it was important for Democrats to have seats at the table and to encourage the panel to look into other issues, like voter suppression. “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably going to be on the menu.”
Kryptonite: Dunn told ThinkProgress that he is friendly with the secretary of state, who recommended him for the commission, but he did not know he was selected until the press release went out to the public. “It caught me by surprise,” he said laughing. He also said in late June that he had no idea what topics the commission was planning to investigate.
Mark Rhodes (D)
Clerk in Woods County, West Virginia
Power: Rhodes, who runs elections in a small West Virginia county, told ThinkProgress he is “really not sure” why he was named to the commission. “They were looking for a Democratic county clerk and there’s not a whole lot of those in West Virginia,” he said. He joined the commission, he said, to prove that people who cry voter fraud are incorrect.
Kryptonite: Rhodes told ThinkProgress that Democrats and Republicans are both equally guilty of spreading misinformation about voter fraud. “Normally the ones that talk about voter fraud are the ones that lose the election,” he said.