Voting booths inside the Early Vote Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota on October 5, 2016.
States push back against voter fraud commission
02:20 - Source: CNN

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The letter sought publicly available information, a spokesman said

Voting rights advocates have expressed concern about the commission from the beginning

Washington CNN  — 

A Trump administration letter requesting data from all 50 state’s voting rolls has put some states and voting rights advocates on edge after many were already wary of the aims of the President’s commission on voting.

The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity’s vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, sent a letter to each state Wednesday asking a series of questions soliciting feedback about election administration, voter fraud and the integrity of the process. CNN obtained a copy of the letter sent to Maine’s secretary of state.

Kobach also requested that each state provide “publicly available voter roll data” as allowed under each state’s laws, which could include full names of registered voters, dates of birth, party registration, last four digits of Social Security numbers and voting history.

The letter was discussed on an organizational call of the commission, according to a White House readout and spokesman Marc Lotter.

As of Friday afternoon, at least 27 states had publicly expressed reservations or legal barriers to turning over all of the requested information, particularly with regard to the privacy of social security numbers, according to a CNN inquiry to all 50 states. Several others, including South Carolina and Arkansas, had not yet received Kobach’s letter.

President Donald Trump attacked the states Saturday on Twitter, suggesting they could be hiding something.

“Numerous states are refusing to give information to the very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL. What are they trying to hide?” he tweeted.

Some state officials began coming out Thursday in opposition to the request – concerned that it was evidence of an agenda by the Trump White House and dismissing it as “politically motivated and silly posturing,” per Virginia’s governor.

“I have no intention of honoring this request,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Virginia conducts fair, honest, and democratic elections, and there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in Virginia. This entire commission is based on the specious and false notion that there was widespread voter fraud last November. At best this commission was set up as a pretext to validate Donald Trump’s alternative election facts, and at worst is a tool to commit large-scale voter suppression.”

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, said of Kobach’s letter: “My reply would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from. Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our state’s right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes.”

The Connecticut secretary of state, Democrat Denise Merrill, said she would share information that is publicly available “in the spirit of transparency,” while also protecting private voter information. But she also criticized Kobach’s track record and expressed concern in an ulterior motive.

“In the same spirit of transparency, we will request that the Commission share any memos, meeting minutes or additional information as state officials have not been told precisely what the Commission is looking for,” Merrill said. “This lack of openness is all the more concerning, considering that the Vice Chair of the Commission, Kris Kobach, has a lengthy record of illegally disenfranchising eligible voters in Kansas.”

Civil rights and voting rights advocates were also concerned. Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt, a former Obama Justice Department official, blasted the request from Kobach as “massively irresponsible” and questioned whether it might run afoul of certain laws, in a post on the legal blog Take Care.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who is a member of the commission, said his state would review the request under state law. He also confirmed to CNN that the commission discussed the request on its organizing call and agreed to send the letter ahead of its first meeting.

“There was no objections raised in the organizational call to asking for this information and beginning the fact-finding process,” said Lotter about the controversy in response to the letter. “It’s just requesting public information. … As the President’s executive order says, the commission is going to look at issues that could cause fraudulent or not-current voter registration, which could lead to improper voting, as part of a holistic look at the election systems and what can be done to maintain the integrity but also in some cases strengthen the integrity and security of that information moving forward.”

As Kansas secretary of state, Kobach has been a leading voice nationally in trying to combat voter fraud, which studies have shown is statistically close to nonexistent. He has also become a lightning rod for controversy and a target of voting rights activists.

Kobach pioneered a national cross-referencing system for states to check their voter rolls for overlaps. His critics have alleged the system is too prone to allowing legitimate voters to be purged from voting systems. He also fought in court for the ability to require verification of citizenship on voter registration forms, ultimately unsuccessfully.

Kobach has defended his actions, saying he is seeking to uphold the integrity of elections. Trump has repeatedly discussed a similar theme, decrying voter fraud as a large scale problem. He has made debunked and unsubstantiated claims about millions of illegal votes in the 2016 election.

The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity was set up, ostensibly, to look into the possibility of vote fraud and the integrity of the system more generally. Vice President Mike Pence chairs the commission, which has four Democratic members so far.

Kobach’s appointment as vice chairman rankled voting rights groups from the start, and Trump’s addition to the commission of Hans Von Spakovsky, a Heritage Foundation scholar and longtime sparring partner for the groups, on Thursday only added to the concern.

Some members of the commission have said they hope to investigate Russian meddling in the election and the security of voting networks.

The voting commission has started to begin its work, with its organizational call this week and a scheduled first meeting later this month. Lotter said the goal of the commission is to have a report to the President within a year.

CNN’s Grace Hauck, Elizabeth Stark, Betsy Klein and Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.