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Lawsuit: Trump’s Election Commission Is Hiding Public Information

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“If the commission is being run in order to advance a misleading narrative about voter fraud, it threatens to undermine fair access to our democracy."

President Donald Trump’s election commission led by voter suppression advocates won’t be able to operate in the dark if a new lawsuit is successful.

Trump in May signed an executive order creating the “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity,” led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kris Kobach, who as Kansas’ secretary of state was routinely accused of advancing voter suppression efforts. The commission’s stated purpose is to investigate allegations of voter fraud in the 2016 election.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and the Protect Democracy Project filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in New York to compel the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of Management and Budget to answer requests and disclose public information related to the commission.

The voting rights groups argue in their lawsuit that the public is legally entitled to information about operations, methods, and stated intentions of the president’s commission. The organizations assert that their requests to the agencies for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have been ignored.

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In their FOIA requests, plaintiffs had asked for all communications and documents relating to the commission and its members, or relating to any similar effort to establish a body to study allegations of voter fraud. Plaintiffs now ask the court to order the government to search for and produce the records to which they are entitled.

Other members of the so-called election integrity commission have elicited concern from voting rights advocates, including Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation; J. Christian Adams, president and general counsel of the Public Interest Legal Foundation; and Ken Blackwell, former Ohio secretary of state, who was involved in purging voting rolls in Ohio prior to the 2016 election. These commissioners have long records of championing measures that impede eligible voters from participating in elections, according to voting rights advocates.

“This administration has a troubling pattern of keeping public information from the public—a pattern that is continuing with this commission,” Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “The government’s obligation to share this information is especially important when there are so many reasons to be skeptical of this commission.”

When Trump first announced the creation of the commission, the bipartisan United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) issued a warning about the commission’s intent. “The President has frequently asserted a claim of widespread voter fraud but offered no evidence in support of it; nor has any credible source offered any evidentiary support for it. Creating a special commission in these circumstances is misleading and an unnecessary diversion of resources,” USCCR’s official position stated.

USCCR issued another statement last week expressing concerns about the Department of Justice changing its legal position in a key voting rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. The case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, involves the Ohio voter roll purges and whether they violated the National Voter Registration Act, otherwise known as Motor Voter Law. That case has not yet been set for oral argument before the Court.

“If the commission is being run in order to advance a misleading narrative about voter fraud, it threatens to undermine fair access to our democracy. When the stakes are that high, ensuring transparency is a critical safeguard,” Larry Schwartztol, an attorney with Protect Democracy, said in a statement.

The administration has not yet been given a date to respond to the records request.

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