The request from Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap seemed to be a given for any member of President Trump’s voter fraud commission: He wanted transparency.
But Dunlap, among a handful of Democrats on the panel launched by executive order in May with the stated goal of restoring confidence and integrity in the electoral process, said he was denied full access to internal information. So he sued the commission he sits on.
On Friday, a federal judge ruled the panel must give Dunlap access to relevant documents in order to allow him to fully participate in the commission’s work.
“He has a right to access documents that the commission is considering relying on in the course of developing its final recommendations,” U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote in a lengthy opinion.
Last month, Dunlap filed the lawsuit against the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, alleging he was being denied access to the commission’s records and effectively frozen out of its activities. He wanted access to, among other things, communications about how to select experts who would testify before the committee and the scheduling of meetings. At the core of his lawsuit, Dunlap argued that the voter fraud commission had run afoul of the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires transparency and balanced membership for government advisory groups.
The commission has convened twice — in Washington, D.C., in July, and in New Hampshire in September — and heard testimony about how to improve the registration and voting process. The panel’s work is expected to be completed sometime next year in the form of a written report.
Outside those meetings, Dunlap said he had received little information pertinent to the commission’s overall goal — no written debriefings from the gatherings and no guidance about future meetings. Before filing the lawsuit, he wrote a letter to the panel’s leaders including its chairman, Vice President Mike Pence, and vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. One of the only notes Dunlap received from the panel leaders came in October, acknowledging the unexpected death of former Arkansas state Rep. David Dunn, another Democrat on the committee.
Dunlap said he was also caught off guard by reports in October that a researcher for the commission was arrested on child pornography charges.
Three other Democrats sit on the 11-member commission and have expressed concerns about transparency, but Dunlap was the only one to file a lawsuit.
Dunlap said Saturday that he was relieved by the judge’s decision in the case.
“In order for participation of myself and other commissioners to be meaningful, we have to be treated as full partners in the work,” Dunlap said. “The people of the United States deserve the open and transparent process.”
Danielle Lang, senior legal counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which focuses on election law, said the ruling set a good standard heading into the new year.
“At the very minimum, if the commission is going to offer the fig leaf of bipartisanship, they should be allowing members of the group to receive any and all the information they want,” she said.
Neither the White House nor Kobach immediately responded to requests for comment.
In May, Trump established the commission to study registration and voting processes. He has said — without evidence — that 3 million to 5 million illegal votes were cast in last year’s presidential election, in which he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots.
Critics have assailed the commission as a sham created by an insecure president and a tool to justify measures that would make it harder for minorities to vote.
In recent months, the panel has faced a flurry of lawsuits over privacy concerns for requesting voter names, addresses and other data from all 50 states — 15 of which have reportedly denied the requests.
This fall, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an independent and nonpartisan agency, announced that it had accepted a request from Democratic lawmakers to review the commission.
In an Oct. 18 letter requesting an investigation, Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota wrote that the manner in which the commission is conducting its work “will prevent the public from a full and transparent understanding of the commission’s conclusions and unnecessarily diminish confidence in our democratic process.”
A review by the agency is expected to be completed in the months ahead.
When Trump created the commission, he ordered its members to meet and collaborate with election officials from all 50 states.
Dunlap said Saturday that the committee had not informed him of its next meeting, but that he intended to continue working on the panel.
“Whatever is the outcome of our work, it needs to be done as a full unit,” he said. “Everyone needs to be informed and the commission has to work as one.”