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Trump and Pence defend voter fraud panel at first meeting

Critics have complained about the commission’s transparency, potential bias and data-collection efforts. (July 19, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence opened the first meeting of the White House's voter-fraud task force with a vigorous defense of the commission's mission, even as critics questioned its transparency, impartiality and data-collection efforts.

Pence, who chairs the commission, said it "has no preconceived notions or preordained results" and will work to "enhance the American people's confidence in our electoral system."

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Critics, however, have said the commission appears to have been stacked with members who support Trump's unfounded claims that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the 2016 election. Trump, who trailed in the popular vote by nearly 3 million, blamed that loss on immigrants in the country illegally who voted.

Nearly every credible study has concluded that voter fraud is either nonexistent or too small to affect election outcomes.

"Voter fraud is extremely rare and very isolated when it happens," said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who watched the meeting but is not part of the commission. "They're attempting to distract from the real issues."

Padilla said there are other more pressing issues deserving of federal attention, such as Russia's interference in the 2016 election. He worried the commission would be used to suppress voter turnout. "They will be using it as a vehicle to roll back voting rights," he said.

The meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity was closed to the public and media, but live-streamed on the White House website.

The commission has been hit with a flurry of lawsuits since requesting voter information from states, including dates of birth, addresses, partial Social Security numbers and election participation figures since 2006.

In response to a lawsuit from the public-interest research group Electronic Privacy Information Center, the commission stopped collection of voter information on July 10 pending the court's ruling, which is expected anytime.

Many states had already declined to release any voter information based on their own privacy laws and protections, and others have agreed to submit only partial information.

As he has before, Trump said Wednesday that states' refusal to release voter information was suspect. "If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they're worried about. There's something, there always is," he said.

But even commission vice chairman Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who has claimed there was widespread voting fraud in 2016, was prohibited by state law from releasing voters' Social Security numbers.

Hans von Spakovsky, an attorney who works with the Heritage Foundation and a member of the commission, said the attitude of states refusing to submit information was "odd" since most of the information was publicly available.

"It'd be nice if the states provided it to us but there are commercial data companies who work specifically in the campaign data who get all this information and package it up for candidates," Spakovsky said.

Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who said he would not submit voter information, said the request and the commission are part of "political theater" to justify Trump's claims of voter fraud.

"The idea of requesting all this information and that they would make it all public is outrageous," he said. "It undermines the entire process of voting when people fear their information will be made public."

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The commission only heightened privacy concerns recently when it asked for public comments on its mission and then posted scores of emails without removing personally identifiable information about the senders.

The commission defended its request, saying it only asked for publicly available information on a voluntary basis, and that the data was necessary for strengthening public confidence in voting processes.

In addition to the Electronic Privacy Information Center lawsuit, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Citizen, Common Cause and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund have sued, citing privacy concerns and other alleged violations.

A federal district court ruled Tuesday in favor of the commission in two separate lawsuits filed from the ACLU and the Lawyers' Committee. Both groups were seeking to block the commission's meetings, claiming it had violated federal rules about public notification and participation.

The commission met via teleconference earlier in June, but Wednesday's meeting, chaired by Pence, was the first public meeting.

Except for the president, Wednesday's meeting did not include comments from anyone other than commission members.

During the meeting, commission members outlined a long list of topics for future discussion, including how the federal government can help states maintain accurate voter rolls, the impact of automatic voter registration and the prevalence of voting by noncitizens.

New Hampshire Secretary of State and commission member Bill Gardner, also a Democrat, said the commission should focus on increasing public confidence in the voting process.

Kobach suggested the commission may need to move to closed-door meetings when discussing issues of cybersecurity for state voter databases. The panel is set to meet again in September and plans to meet four times in the next nine months.

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UPDATES:

1:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction and background.

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This article was originally published at 9:40 a.m.

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