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Civil rights groups fume over Trump’s choice of Kobach to head voter fraud panel

In this Nov. 20, 2016, file photo, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is seen in Bedminster, N.J. President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order launching a commission to review alleged voter fraud and voter suppression in the U.S. election system, three White House officials said. Kobach and Vice President Mike Pence will lead the commission, which will look at allegations of improper voting and fraudulent voter registration in states and across the nation.
In this Nov. 20, 2016, file photo, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is seen in Bedminster, N.J. President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order launching a commission to review alleged voter fraud and voter suppression in the U.S. election system, three White House officials said. Kobach and Vice President Mike Pence will lead the commission, which will look at allegations of improper voting and fraudulent voter registration in states and across the nation. AP

Kris Kobach, who as Kansas secretary of state repeatedly made unsubstantiated voter-fraud allegations, will co-chair President Donald Trump’s new Commission on Election Integrity, igniting outrage from civil rights groups and top Democrats.

Critics ridiculed the very creation of the commission Thursday, as well as Kobach’s role, saying it’s all intended to perpetuate the president’s false claim that millions voted illegally in November.

The 12-member bipartisan commission will review claims of improper registrations and voting, fraudulent registrations and voter suppression, White House officials told McClatchy. Members will provide the president with a report in 2018 and may issue recommendations to the states.

It’s a sham, charged critics.

“Putting an extremist like Mr. Kobach at the helm of this commission is akin to putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department,” charged Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

The American Civil Liberties Union called on election administrators, academics and other public servants to refuse to participate in the commission. The group also filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information that the Trump administration had used as the basis for its voter fraud claims.

The panel is nothing but a pretext for disenfranchising Americans, said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

“We have a president who has said he won the popular vote when he did not,” Ho said. “We have a commission that will be led, for all intents and purposes, by the king of voter suppression, Kris Kobach. So there’s no reason to believe that this commission will be anything other than a sham.”

In an interview with McClatchy’s Kansas City Star, Kobach rejected the idea that the commission was created to validate Trump’s voter fraud claims.

“The commission does not begin with foregone conclusions,” he said. “All members of the commission are approaching it with an open mind. . . . The objective is to go where the facts lead us.”

Almost immediately after his victory in November, Trump said that millions of people had voted illegally and deprived him of a popular-vote win. He also said there was unspecified voter fraud in three states he lost: California, New Hampshire and Virginia.

Independent fact-checkers mocked Trump for the voter fraud allegations, saying there was no evidence. Trump’s team cited two-year-old reports that did not point to fraud even then.

Trump told Fox News in January that he would establish a commission to be led by Vice President Mike Pence that would investigate voter fraud. Pence will chair the commission created Thursday, but Kobach’s role is expected to be significant. Pence’s office did not immediately respond to questions.

While other secretaries of state, as well as government and academic studies, say occurrences of voter fraud are rare, Kellyanne Conway and other top Trump advisers cited Kobach as the source of the president’s unsupported claim that millions of illegal ballots had tipped the popular vote in Democrat Hillary Clinton’s favor.

So far, Kobach has provided no hard evidence of widespread voter fraud. The author of one study he cited, the Cooperative Congressional Elections Study, has said it actually shows a rate of noncitizen voting of about zero.

Kobach said his position on the new commission would be part time and unpaid aside from travel reimbursement but the commission would have full-time staff from the vice president’s office and the Department of Homeland Security. He said it would not interfere with his duties as Kansas secretary of state.

The commission will produce the most expansive study of voter fraud to date, he said.

“This is really a first-of-its-kind enterprise, for the first time having a national body gather data from all 50 states,” Kobach said.

Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said Kobach was a good pick to lead the commission.

“He’s obviously very intelligent, and he’s spent a lot of time digging into elections and different ways there can be problems with voters, whether it’s voter fraud or unintentional mistakes,” Barker said.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, said any commission studying the “white hot” issue of voter fraud should be headed by bipartisan leaders commanding respect.

“It should include professionals who study election administration,” Hasen said. “And it should avoid people who have made a name for themselves by hyping false or wildly exaggerated claims of voter fraud.”

Although bipartisan in name, Trump’s commission will provide cover for Republican efforts to suppress voter turnout, particularly among minorities, said Jason Kander, a Kansas City Democrat who founded Let America Vote, a national organization dedicated to defending voting rights.

“For over a decade,” Kander said, “the Republican Party has made it a central part of their political strategy to push the myth of widespread voter fraud . . . when the real problem they’re trying to solve is there are certain groups of Americans who are unlikely to vote Republican.”

Kobach is the only secretary of state in the nation with prosecutorial power. During his tenure as Kansas’ top election official, he has championed some of the strictest voting laws in the country, including the state’s controversial proof-of-citizenship law, which requires people to provide birth certificates or passports in order to register to vote.

He’s successfully prosecuted nine cases of voter fraud in Kansas since he took office six years ago, most recently the conviction of a man for voting in both Kansas and Texas. Preston Glen Christensen pleaded guilty and paid a $1,000 fine and court costs.

Kobach also expanded and continues to oversee the Interstate Crosscheck Program, which 32 states use to identify duplicative voters. Critics of the program say it has resulted in false positives.

Kobach said Thursday that Crosscheck would release its analysis of the 2016 election soon and that there would be data relevant to Trump’s voter-fraud claims.

Kobach, who is weighing a run for governor in Kansas, has turned the typically sleepy secretary of state’s office into a platform to push conservative policies. He served as informal adviser to Trump on immigration and election issues and said in the past that he had advised Trump to investigate voter fraud.

Judges who have ruled against Kobach in voting rights cases have accused him of engaging in “wordplay meant to present a materially inaccurate picture of the documents” and dismissed his assertions about voter fraud because they were backed by “scant evidence” or based on “pure speculation.”

After the election, Kobach appeared to be a contender to lead the Department of Homeland Security. He was photographed taking a plan for the agency into a Nov. 20 meeting with Trump.

The plan, which was only partially visible in the photo, included a reference to voter rolls.

That plan is now part of a legal battle between Kobach and the ACLU, which is seeking its disclosure as part of a lawsuit against Kansas’ proof-of-citizenship voting law. The ACLU argued that if Kobach had lobbied Trump on changes to the National Voter Registration Act, the documents may contain material relevant to the case.

A U.S. federal magistrate judge ordered Kobach in April to turn over the plan. On Wednesday, a U.S. federal district judge upheld the order and gave Kobach until Friday to produce the documents.

Kobach said the documents in the case with the ACLU were not related to the new commission. He had not decided whether to appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

He said the documents “aren’t nearly as exciting as all of the briefing on them suggests.”

Anita Kumar in Washington and The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this article.

Lowry, of The Kansas City Star, reported from Kansas City, Missouri.

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