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Trump names official who has inaccurately purged voters rolls to oversee election security

The nominee for the Election Assistance Commission is responsible for disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters.

Three voting booths stand idle at the Philomont, Va fire station in Virginia's 10th Congressional district, Rep. Barbara Comstock's district, on primary election day in Virginia on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Three voting booths stand idle at the Philomont, Va fire station in Virginia's 10th Congressional district, Rep. Barbara Comstock's district, on primary election day in Virginia on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Trump is nominating an elections official to the commission tasked with improving states’ voting systems who worked to make it harder for people to vote in his state.

Trump announced Wednesday that he’s nominating Donald L. Palmer to be a member of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a government body formed in the wake of the disastrous 2000 election to help states update and improve their voting systems and protect election security.

Palmer, a policy advisor for the EAC and the former Virginia State Board of Elections secretary, has a long history of using error-riddled lists to inaccurately purge voters from the rolls, misinforming voters about their registration status, and pushing for laws that disenfranchise low-income, minority voters.

In 2013, Virginia’s GOP-controlled legislature unanimously passed a law requiring the Board to Elections to coordinate its voter rolls with other states and jurisdictions. Under the law, Virginia would participate in the Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, the brainchild of Kansas Secretary of State and notorious vote suppressor Kris Kobach (R).

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That year, just a few weeks before a contested gubernatorial election, Palmer used the error-riddled Crosscheck system to remove what he claimed were up to 57,000 registered voters whose registration data matched that of someone in a different state.

But not all of those voters were actually registered in other states — Crosscheck frequently turns up false positives because of similar sounding or identical names, clerical errors, and other problems with the data. Yet Palmer decided to treat a voter’s appearance on the list as a request to be deleted from the rolls. Voters were not given an opportunity to confirm the information or correct any errors.

“It was extremely disconcerting and problematic that the state would embark on a voter purge right before a significant election without any voter protections in place or without an opportunity for voters to verify that they were eligible to vote in Virginia,” said .

“We started hearing stories from voters who actually live in Virginia and should be eligible to vote in Virginia,” she told ThinkProgress. “One woman lived in South Carolina previously and so she was purged from the voter registration rolls just a couple weeks before an election and after the voter registration deadline. There was potential for a lot of Virginia voters to be disenfranchised.”

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At the time, ThinkProgress reported that Republican Chesterfield County Registrar Lawrence C. Haake III refused to participate in the purge after finding a 17 percent error rate. Palmer unsuccessfully pushed the local board to overrule him.

Palmer has also tried to make it harder for registered citizens to cast ballots. In August 2014 — just two weeks before a special election — he tightened the restrictions on Virginia’s voter ID law. Under the new law, voters would be required to present either a current photo ID or one that expired within the past year.

“We believe it’s a compromise and gives people a reasonable grace period,” Palmer told the Washington Post at the time.

Nguyen said in 2014 that around 300,000 Virginia voters lack an ID issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Voters without ID are more likely to be low-income, minorities, the elderly, and college students — all groups that are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.

Then in June 2014, his last month as chair of Virginia’s elections, Palmer sent letters to registered voters, notifying them that they appeared to be registered in another state. The following month, the Board of Elections said that about 125,000 letters had accidentally been sent to voters who had moved within Virginia, and that they were not actually registered in multiple states.

Palmer told ThinkProgress in 2014 that the letters were the result of an “administrative error.”

The bipartisan EAC administers federal Help America Vote Act funds to states, helping them to improve their elections systems. In recent years, the agency has worked to make sure that elections are accessible to those with disabilities, allocated funds for innovative election technology, and studied and reported election best practices, among other roles.

Despite ongoing threats to U.S. elections, many Republicans claim that the EAC has outlived its purpose. In February 2017, shortly after Trump took office, Republicans in Congress introduced legislation to eliminate the agency. The move failed, and the commission has continued working to prepare for the 2018 election and the potential for more Russian interference or cyberattacks.

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In February, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) chipped away at the commission choosing not to renew the term of chairman Matthew Masterson after his four-year term expired. Election security and voting advocates called the decision to let him go “insanity” when the EAC is needed to protect elections, according to Politico.

The move left just two commissioners, one of which is Republican Christy McCormick, who has been skeptical about the need for election security. A few weeks later, Commissioner Thomas Hicks was named the new chairman.

Meanwhile, President Trump created — and then disbanded — a presidential commission to investigate his false claim that millions of illegal voters participated in the 2016 election. Kobach, a Trump ally who helped chair that commission, has had his claims of widespread non-citizen voting rejected in federal court.