More than three months after President Trump vowed to investigate unfounded claims that last November's election was tainted by as many as 5 million fraudulent votes, the White House has announced the creation of a presidential commission led by Vice President Mike Pence to investigate voter fraud.
"The commission will review policies and practices that enhance or undermine the American people's confidence in the integrity of federal elections and provide the president with a report that identifies system vulnerabilities that lead to improper registrations and voting," said White House spokewoman Sarah Sanders. "The experts and officials on this commission will follow the facts where they lead."
Numerous independent investigations have concluded that voter fraud exists, but is extremely limited in scope.
Despite Trump's much-scrutinized statements about voter fraud, establishing the commission appeared to be a low priority for the White House. None of the likely participants had been contacted by the administration when NPR reported on the issue in March. This expected official announcement comes just two days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, is the commission's vice chair and his participation will likely be controversial. Kobach has long claimed that there's widespread illegal voting by noncitizens in the U.S., despite the lack of evidence. He has prosecuted only a handful of voting fraud cases in his state.
Kobach has headed a campaign to require that voters show proof of citizenship when registering, something voting rights groups have fought in court, claiming that it's discriminatory and unnecessary.
"This commission is nothing but a Trump-sponsored propaganda factory for justifying the GOP's broader voter suppression efforts and nursing the president's wounded ego after he lost the popular vote," said Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez.
Other participants include Democrats and Republicans involved in election administration at the state level, including the secretaries of state of Indiana, Maine and New Hampshire.
The commission is also charged with looking into other irregularities and problems in the voting process, including duplicate and outdated voter registrations. It will be tasked with reporting its findings sometime next year.
It's unlikely the commission will get much cooperation or support from voting rights activists, who are concerned that the commission's report will be used to justify more state-level restrictions on voting, such as strict identification requirements.
"President Trump is trying to create a distraction from actual threats to our democracy, such as ongoing voter suppression and Russia's interference in the 2016 election," said Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
Many state election officials are also worried the commission will divert attention from other serious concerns, such as aging equipment and the threat of hacking. U.S. intelligence officials have said they fully expect that Russians will attempt to hack future U.S. elections, after their attempts to influence last year's vote.
NPR's Tamara Keith contributed reporting to this story.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
President Trump has claimed without evidence that millions of illegal votes were cast in last year's election, and he has said he would order an investigation. Today, he signed an executive order establishing a commission to study voter fraud, as well as other problems, such as improper registrations. That's something the president talked about in February in an interview with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You take a look at the registration. You have illegals. You have dead people. You have this. It's really a bad situation. It's really bad.
MCEVERS: To talk about this now we are with NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers this issue. And, Pam, this commission took a while to set up. What's it going to actually do?
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: That's right, Kelly. It's been over three months since the president first proposed it. It turns out it's going to be more of an advisory panel than an investigation. The commission is going to study the voting system and try and identify any problems, such as fraud or improper registrations, that might undermine public confidence. And then they're supposed to report back to the president next year.
MCEVERS: Who is on the commission?
FESSLER: Well, Vice President Mike Pence is going to be the chairman. And although it's a bipartisan commission, the vice chair is going to be a Republican in Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach. And he's very controversial. He has long argued that illegal voting, especially by noncitizens, is rampant. And he's a strong advocate of strict voter I.D. laws. There will be about a dozen members in all, including current and former state election officials and some experts in the field that are still to be named.
MCEVERS: A lot of people have been pretty skeptical of the president's claims that there've been voter fraud. So what's the response been?
FESSLER: Well, a lot of the election officials do think that more can be done to clean up the voter rolls and to improve voter confidence. But you're right. The president's allegations that millions of people voted illegally last November have been widely dismissed by Democrats and Republicans. There's just no evidence. And liberal voting rights groups are very worried that this commission, especially with Kobach on it, is going to be used to justify Republican efforts to pass strict voter I.D. laws. So even before the president signed the law, it was being condemned strongly by voting rights groups and Democrats.
Common Cause issued a statement calling it a sham that would be looking for problems that don't exist. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said that Trump was trying to, quote, create a distraction from actual threats to our democracy, such as ongoing voter suppression. Still, there are some conservative groups that think that voter - that think voter fraud is a problem. And they're eager to see what the commission comes up with.
MCEVERS: Is it possible the commission could, you know, put to rest some of these controversies?
FESSLER: Well, to be honest, since it's only advisory, it's hard to imagine that it's actually going to have that much impact. We've had a lot of studies and commissions in the past that have looked into voter issues and how to improve the process. So many election officials think that this is really going to be a waste of time and money. What they're really worried about is aging voting equipment that needs to be replaced and the potential for Russians to hack into future elections. And neither of those issues is likely to be addressed.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers voting issues. Thank you very much.
FESSLER: Thank you.
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