To Protect Voting Rights, Sunlight Is Still the Best of Disinfectants

On Wednesday, President Trump announced the dissolution of the so-called Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The commission was led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, known for his nativist views and his zealous search for non-existent evidence of widespread voter fraud. It was created to investigate Trump’s false claim that 3 to 5 million illegal votes for Hillary Clinton had been cast in the 2016 election.

From the beginning, it was evident that the commission was nothing but a white-supremacist project designed to manufacture evidence of voter fraud to justify efforts to deny communities of color the right to vote. As commission member Alan King stated in response to the decision to disband the commission, “This was never about voter fraud. It was about suppressing the vote.” But to hide the true purpose of the commission, Kobach conducted its operations in almost total secrecy. Its meetings were conducted behind closed doors, and it refused numerous requests for information about its activities.

King and other Democratic members complained that they were left in the dark about what the commission was doing and how it was going about investigating Trump’s bogus claims of widespread voter fraud. This lack of transparency was so bad that it drove one of the commission’s own members, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, to sue the commission.

The covert operation of the commission didn’t just make it harder for some commissioners to do their jobs. It also violated the law, specifically, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires government entities such as the commission to conduct their affairs openly and in public, and to keep and make available written records of their activities. That legal requirement was the basis of Secretary Dunlap’s lawsuit, as well as several other legal challenges to the commission’s legitimacy by the ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and other groups. The commission’s ongoing refusal to disclose information about its actions also violates the Freedom of Information Act, as the Brennan Center for Justice and other groups have argued in additional lawsuits. And last night, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a Freedom of Information Request in federal court to find out what data the commission collected and sent to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and what Mr. Kobach and the DHS might do with the data going forward.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that sunlight is the best of disinfectants. But rather than expose the rot at the core of Kobach’s fraudulent commission to the disinfecting power of sunlight, Trump chose to shut it down.

The demise of the commission does not mean the threat to voting rights posed by the Trump administration has passed. Kobach has claimed that the commission’s work will be carried forward by the DHS, which has its own history of contributing to false claims of non-citizen voting. One thing is certain: on the heels of the advocacy that forced the sham commission to disband, Demos and other voting rights advocates will continue fighting for government transparency and against the administration’s unwarranted attacks on voting rights. Our name means “the people,” and we believe that every citizen of the new American demos must have an equal say in our democracy. 

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