WASHINGTON — The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which was disbanded this week by the White House, grew out of a presidential tweet.
“I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD,” President Trump wrote on Jan. 25, just days after his inauguration, repeating a claim he had made that millions of illegal immigrants had voted improperly in the last presidential election and swung the popular vote in Hillary Clinton’s favor.
On Wednesday the president closed the inquiry, which after eight months of efforts had found no evidence of electoral fraud and had been widely discredited and enmeshed in controversy after controversy. Its epitaph too was marked by a follow-up missive typed out on Thursday morning by @realDonaldTrump.
“System is rigged,” Mr. Trump wrote, blaming Democratic obstructionism for preventing the commission from getting to the bottom of his claim. Others paint a different picture: Riven by partisan politics, ensnared in lawsuits over its lack of transparency and repeatedly humbled by gaffes, the panel not only had lost any public credibility, but had suffered an erosion of support even in Mr. Trump’s inner circle.
Vice President Mike Pence, the nominal leader of the commission, was said to have never considered the inquiry a top priority, and Stephen K. Bannon, its most aggressive champion, had thoroughly fallen out with Mr. Trump, one person close to Mr. Pence said on Thursday. Clearly floundering, the commission had been destined to be moved to an agency at some point, the official said, so the White House decided to push out the news of its shutdown while the uproar around a new book about the presidency, in which Mr. Bannon took on the administration, was dominating cable news coverage.
The commission was formed with enormous fanfare; its creation gave insight into the president’s penchant for loudly pushing his own view of reality. Its demise showed how an issue can sometimes slip off the presidential agenda with a whisper.
From the day it was created last May, the voter fraud inquiry had been dogged by accusations that it was a sop to Mr. Trump’s baseless claim that illegal ballots were responsible for Mrs. Clinton’s 2.9 million popular-vote victory in the 2016 presidential campaign. Critics in voting-rights and civil rights advocacy groups said the panel’s makeup, top-heavy with Republicans and proponents of the notion that voter fraud is endemic, sent a clear message that its conclusions were predetermined, a mere windup for the enactment of new voting restrictions favored by Republicans.
It was at the commission’s second and final public meeting, on Sept. 12, that growing disagreements among the panel’s 12 commissioners boiled over.
Days before the session, the commission’s de facto leader, Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas, had written a column for a far-right website noting that thousands of New Hampshire’s registered voters had out-of-state driver’s licenses. From there it was a short leap to the column’s startling conclusion: The narrow Democratic victory in the state’s 2016 race for the United States Senate appeared to have been “stolen through voter fraud.”
Matthew Dunlap, the Democratic secretary of state of Maine and a member of the commission, had been the most vocal skeptic on the panel. At the hearing, at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, he called Mr. Kobach’s statement reckless. “That would be almost as absurd as saying if you have cash in your pocket that you robbed a bank,” he said.
Weeks later, Mr. Dunlap would sue his own commission, contending he had been illegally shut out of its deliberations by its Republican leaders. Shortly before Christmas, a federal judge agreed, and ordered the commission to turn over to him a sheaf of internal documents. And on Wednesday, barely a week later, the White House issued a brusque two-sentence statement disbanding the commission altogether, and parceling out its duties to the Department of Homeland Security.
The commission’s many critics applauded Mr. Trump’s decision. But his decision to hand responsibility for the investigation to a cabinet agency seems likely to spawn an entirely new set of battles.
To those who saw the inquiry as a partisan attempt to suppress Democratic votes in the guise of increasing election security, the decision shifted the search for evidence of voter fraud from a public commission to a federal law enforcement agency with less transparency than any blue-ribbon commission.
Mr. Kobach, who plans to remain an adviser to the inquiry, said he wanted Homeland Security to match its databases on legal and illegal immigrants with state voter registration lists to weed out the noncitizen voters that he and Mr. Trump claim are well hidden and ubiquitous on voter rolls.
But the department must take specific legal steps to obtain the state data, and any effort to simply hand over the commission’s voter data would be met with a lawsuit, said Jon Greenbaum, the chief counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The civil rights group has so far prevailed in a federal suit that forced the voter fraud commission to turn over evidence indicating that some commission members were excluded from internal deliberations.
“What you’re going to see is continued litigation over this,” he said, “and I think you’re going to see a lot of different issues pop up that will give judges and the public pause.”
Others worry that Mr. Trump’s decision will complicate work on the far more pressing issue of foreign interference in American elections.
After evidence surfaced of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Homeland Security initially kept state officials in the dark about the Kremlin’s efforts to hack election databases and vendors.
The Constitution gives states control of most election functions, a power they have fiercely shielded from federal meddling. Only after months of delicate negotiations did state election officers and the department build a relationship last year that allows the sharing of information on election threats and cybersecurity measures.
“There’s as much cooperation now between the state and federal government on cybersecurity as I’ve ever seen,” said David J. Becker, the director of the Center for Election Innovation and Reform, a Washington research organization. “If the White House tries to drag Homeland Security into this effort to prove voter fraud when we know it doesn’t exist in any significant form, that could have a really negative impact on all the positive work that’s been done.”
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