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Rights Advocates: Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity Set Up as a Pretext for Voter Suppression

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As the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity held its first meeting this week, many voting rights advocates worry that the commission will lay the groundwork for a nationwide voter suppression effort. We speak with Katherine Culliton-González, a civil rights lawyer and senior counsel at Demos.

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Video squareStorySep 13, 2017Background Checks for Voting?: Inside the Trump Election Commission’s Contentious Second Meeting
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The first meeting of a new presidential election committee was held Wednesday in the face of weeks of controversy, seven lawsuits and new calls for the resignation of its vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. President Trump convened the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to look into his allegations of voter fraud during the 2016 presidential election.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Every time voter fraud occurs, it cancels out the vote of a lawful citizen and undermines democracy. Can’t let that happen. Any form of illegal or fraudulent voting, whether by noncitizens or the deceased, and any form of voter suppression or intimidation must be stopped. I’m pleased that more than 30 states have already agreed to share the information with the commission, and the other states, that information will be forthcoming. If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they’re worried about. And I ask the vice president, I ask the commission: What are they worried about? There’s something. There always is.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dozens of state lawmakers and civil rights groups denounced the commission after it asked all 50 states to hand over detailed personal information about U.S. voters, including recent voting history and the last four digits of their Social Security number. At least 45 states and the District of Columbia have refused to comply with parts of Kobach’s request. Thousands of voters have reportedly removed themselves from state voting [rolls] fearing their personal information would be shared with the Trump administration.

The request for voter data was made by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and vice chair of the commission. Kobach’s critics say he has a long record of employing voter suppression tactics as secretary of state of Kansas and a Republican consultant.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, four leading House Democrats wrote to Vice President Mike Pence requesting Kobach resign his post, citing his record and the commission’s request for voter data, which they say violates federal privacy laws.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Katherine Culliton-González, a civil rights lawyer and senior counsel at Demos. Her recent blog post for the website, also published on La Opinión, is titled “Immigration Data That Trump’s 'Election Integrity' Commission May Use is a Pretext to Suppress Latino Voting Rights.”

Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of this commission and all of these latest developments, at least 45 states refusing to comply, in part or in full, with Kris Kobach’s request for information, and then, in a lawsuit, we hear that the Trump administration said, when asked where they would store these hundreds of millions of records, they said, “On Vice President Pence’s computer.” He’s the chair of the commission. Katherine Culliton-González?

KATHERINE CULLITON-GONZÁLEZ: Yes, thank you. We have to wonder what it is that, you know, President Trump is afraid of and what it is that these commissioners are afraid of. The commission, in my mind, has been set up as a pretext for voter suppression. In particular, Kris Kobach is a person who, as you say, for decades now, has fought to suppress voting rights based on false and untrustworthy data. He has been fined by a federal judge for providing false and misleading statements. And he is among some state leaders who have made wild allegations of noncitizens voting, all of which have turned out to be completely false. I was involved in litigation in Florida in 2012, for example, in which Rick Scott alleged there were hundreds of thousands of noncitizens voting. And in the end, only one person was found to have voted who’s not a citizen. That person was Canadian. But the purge and the methods that were used were directed against the Latino community and at the African-American community and the Asian and Pacific Islander community.

So, looking at the data behind this commission, and also looking at the actors in the commission, I would say, consider the source and consider the data and see that it’s a pretext for ongoing voter suppression as a way to sort of freeze the voting rolls in place so we don’t have more diversity, moving forward, to purge off people who have moved recently, to purge off people who can’t afford to pay $555 for a copy of their naturalization certificate, to require documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote, which can be a form of a poll tax.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Katherine, can you talk about some of the immigration groups that Kobach has worked with, some of which have been classified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center?

KATHERINE CULLITON-GONZÁLEZ: Yes, that’s correct. So, he was legal adviser to a group called FAIR, which is an anti-immigrant group, that received funding from the Pioneer Fund. The Pioneer Fund is a fund that actually has—it’s founded by Nazi sympathizers. And the goal of the Pioneer Fund is to try to prove a connection between race and intelligence. There are many other white supremacists that have been part of this FAIR, Federation for American Immigration Reform. And Mr. Kobach was their legal adviser and also the author of anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and other states that were struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. So, for years, he’s been trying to stop immigration, not let Latinos belong in the United States, not let Latinos have equal access to citizenship. And as I said, his methods in voting rights also have a disparate impact on other communities of color. But he’s been targeting Latino immigration and the Latino communities directly for, I would say, at least since 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about your report, “Immigration Data That Trump’s 'Election Integrity' Commission May Use is a Pretext to Suppress Latino Voting Rights,” specifically what you found.

KATHERINE CULLITON-GONZÁLEZ: Well, what I found is based on experience, having litigated against the use of different types of federal data, and also looking very closely at the allegations that Mr. Kobach and others on the commission have made.

The so-called best data that they could possibly use is the SAVE database. That’s a federal immigration database. And the problem is, unlike authoritarian regimes, we don’t have a list of United States citizens nor a United States citizenship document that every person has to carry around with them. So we don’t have any one form of proof of United States citizenship. That’s one problem. The second problem is that this database is not proof of noncitizenship. It has so many errors that it tends to identify folks who are United States citizens for purging on the voting rolls. It particularly hits naturalized citizens. So, naturalized citizens are people who came here as immigrants and then became U.S. citizens through the naturalization process, so their data about their prior immigration status may be with the federal government, and they have naturalized and then registered to vote. So when you take this federal immigration data and you compare it to voting rolls, you’re going to find a lot of errors. It’s very untrustworthy, to the point of being pretextual. And that, as I said, is the best data they could possibly be using. There are other, you know, wild allegations from this group of commissioners that have come out of other data that’s even worse. But the best data has proven to be something that even the state of Florida no longer uses, because of litigation against its use for the purposes of voter list maintenance.

The real fraud is that voters are going to be purged, that communities of color are going to be targeted and that people have very high barriers to get to register to vote in the first place in our country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Katherine, several top Democrats have called for Kobach to step down from the commission. Could you talk about who those Democrats are and what you make of those efforts?

KATHERINE CULLITON-GONZÁLEZ: It’s from the Democratic Party. So, four leading Democrats have called for his resignation. And I agree with their call for resignation, but for completely nonpartisan reasons. And the reason is, is that Mr. Kobach, as I said, has, over and over and over again, used false and misleading data to justify voter suppression. And he’s been very closely associated with white supremacy groups. And he’s been fined by a federal judge. And so, the call for his resignation, I think, is very timely.

We need to consider the source of the allegations that are coming out, and the source of the one person that I’ve heard, aside from, you know, some fringe groups or some fringe people, that the one person who’s made it into mainstream media as saying that Donald Trump’s allegation that 3 million people voted illegally could possibly be true—that’s patently false. And so they’re calling for his resignation because of his background and because he’s untrustworthy. He doesn’t belong in this position. He’s also running for governor in Kansas, so there’s a conflict of interest in trying to manipulate the voting rolls, as I’m sure that this commission will try to do. We’ll see the report in 2018 while he’s running for governor.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, this issue of, for example, hundreds of people in Colorado taking their names off the voter rolls, deeply concerned that their information could be hacked or even simply that they’re giving it to the Trump administration, if the states all comply with Kobach’s demand.

KATHERINE CULLITON-GONZÁLEZ: Yes, I would urge voters to please don’t withdraw your registration. Don’t let them intimidate you. We are standing on the shoulders of a strong voting rights movement where people have faced down worse. And we need to protect our voting rights. People can ask voting rights lawyers at Demos or other groups for assistance. I could understand why someone is afraid of having their data being misused, but I would talk to your secretary of state and talk to your local election officials and tell them, “Don’t disclose the data to the Trump commission in the first place.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Katherine Culliton-González, we thank you for being with us, civil rights lawyer, senior counsel at Demos. We’ll link to your recent piece on immigration data that you say Trump’s election integrity commission may use as a pretext to suppress Latino voting rights.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at the money trail, from Donald Trump to Russian oligarchs and, well, as Craig Unger says, the mob? Stay with us.

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