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Background Checks for Voting?: Inside the Trump Election Commission’s Contentious Second Meeting

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President Donald Trump’s so-called election integrity commission held its second meeting on Tuesday in Manchester, New Hampshire, even as it faces a series of lawsuits and calls for the resignation of its vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. President Trump convened the commission to look into his allegations of voter fraud during the 2016 presidential election. But many voting rights advocates worry that the commission aims to lay the groundwork for a nationwide voter suppression effort. At Tuesday’s contentious meeting, the witness list was comprised of 100 percent white men, including the far-right pro-gun activist John Lott Jr., who proposed requiring voters to first pass a background check. We speak with Ari Berman, senior reporter at Mother Jones. His recent article is titled “Lawsuits, Falsehoods, and a Lot of White Men: Trump’s Election Commission Meets Amid Growing Controversy.” We also speak with Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The organization has filed a complaint against Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the growing controversy over President Trump’s so-called election integrity commission. The commission held its second meeting Tuesday in Manchester, New Hampshire, even as it faces a series of lawsuits and calls for the resignation of its vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. President Trump convened the commission to look into his allegations of voter fraud during the 2016 presidential election. But many voting rights advocates worry the commission aims to lay the groundwork for a nationwide voter suppression effort. At Tuesday’s contentious meeting, the witness list was comprised of 100 percent white men, including the far-right pro-gun activist John Lott Jr., who proposed requiring voters to first pass a background check.

JOHN LOTT JR.: I would like to just make a suggestion that might possibly help overcome part of this problem. That is, think about applying the background check system that we use for purchasing guns, the NICS system, for voting. And, you know, Democrats have long been concerned about voter suppression, and—but they’ve also long lauded the background check system on guns.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Lott Jr., author of the 1998 book More Guns, Less Crime, which some call the Bible of the gun lobby.

Well, at Tuesday’s meeting at Saint Anselm College, the commission’s vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, also claimed New Hampshire’s 2016 election results were tainted by people flooding across borders to cast ballots there. Kobach was reiterating a false claim he also made in a recent article for the far-right news outlet Breitbart, where he is a paid columnist. In the article, he claimed voter fraud elected Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan, who beat out Republican Kelly Ayotte, citing people using out-of-state licenses as evidence. In fact, New Hampshire allows residents who have out-of-state licenses, like college students, to vote. Many residents with out-of-state licenses who voted legally in the election have come forward to refute Kobach’s claims. His false claims drew criticism both from the host of Tuesday’s meeting, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, as well as Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who called the comments “absurd.”

SECRETARY OF STATE MATTHEW DUNLAP: Making this equation that somehow people not updating their driver’s license is an indicator of voter fraud would be almost as absurd as saying that if you have cash in your wallet, that that’s proof that you robbed a bank. I think it’s a reckless statement to make.

AMY GOODMAN: Both the Maine and New Hampshire secretaries of state are on that election commission.

We’re joined by two guests. Here in New York, Ari Berman is with us. Ari is senior reporter at Mother Jones, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His recent piece, “Lawsuits, Falsehoods, and a Lot of White Men: Trump’s Election Commission Meets Amid Growing Controversy.” And in Washington, D.C., Kristen Clarke is with us, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The group has filed a complaint against Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

OK, Ari Berman, let’s begin with you. You were tweeting like crazy yesterday. Talk about what happened.

ARI BERMAN: I think it’s important first to note that this commission is predicated on a gigantic lie, which is that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election. There’s absolutely no evidence of that. If Donald Trump hadn’t made that statement, there would be no commission. So, first off, this commission is predicated on a completely illegitimate statement. Secondly, this commission has been steeped in controversy from the very, very beginning, first with the makeup of the commission, people like Kris Kobach, who have a long history of suppressing votes, leading the commission. Then you have the fact that they requested the voter data of every single American, which led to fears that it would lead to widespread voter suppression. There have been at least seven lawsuits filed against the commission. There has been evidence they’ve been using personal emails to conduct their business—the very thing the Republicans criticized Hillary Clinton for. So, all this was the backdrop to the meeting in New Hampshire.

And we heard a number of extremely radical things. First off, the idea of a background check for voting from John Lott, the NRA’s go-to expert, was the craziest thing that I’ve heard yet from this commission. And that’s saying a lot. You have Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and the commission’s vice chair, who was leading the meeting, saying that voter fraud tipped the election in New Hampshire. There’s absolutely no evidence of this, but, nonetheless, he still is making this claim. He’s also a paid columnist for Breitbart, the so-called platform for the “alt-right,” which likely violates government ethics laws, because he’s using his platform as head of this commission to then profit for websites like Breitbart. Then you had all sorts of other experts on this commission making lots of falsehoods about voter fraud.

So you add all of this stuff up, and what’s happening is that there are all of these lies about voter fraud that are laying the groundwork for a massive voter suppression campaign. What I’m concerned about is all of the radical things we’re hearing are becoming normalized by this commission now. People are going to take it seriously because it’s a presidential commission, even if it has no legitimacy to begin with.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn back to Tuesday’s meeting, when the vice chair of the so-called election integrity commission, Kobach, claimed people are flooding across borders to vote in New Hampshire from other states, suggesting we’ll never know the legitimacy of the election. Kobach’s comments provoked criticism from New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who was hosting the meeting in Manchester. This is Kobach, followed by Gardner.

SECRETARY OF STATE KRIS KOBACH: Last week, the speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives issued a letter indicating that 5,000 of roughly 6,500 people who registered under the same-day registration rule on the day of the election, on November 8th, 2016—about 5,300 of them, as of 10 months later, still had not obtained a New Hampshire driver’s license, which is required of residents within 60 days after moving to the state, nor had they registered a vehicle in the state of New Hampshire. And so this obviously is subject of concern, because there have often been anecdotal reports of people driving into New Hampshire, because it’s a same-day registration state, and voting, because it’s a battleground state that can swing either way. … We will never know the answer regarding the legitimacy of that particular election. … Unlike my state of Kansas, which doesn’t have people flooding across the border to participate in primaries to possibly cast a vote, in New Hampshire, it’s a swing state. Everybody comes here. I remember when I was a college student at Harvard, I came up here to work on the primary for Bob Dole. And there wasn’t same-day registration back then, but if there had been, I know a few people who would have been tempted to say, “Well, I’m living in a hotel here for a week. Maybe I’ll cast a vote.”

SECRETARY OF STATE BILL GARDNER: The question of whether our election, as we have recorded it, is real and valid. And it is real and valid.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner refuting the claims of the vice chair of the commission, Kris Kobach. And there are a lot of calls from New Hampshire for Gardner to quit this commission, saying, no matter what he does on the commission, he’s legitimizing it. Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, you have a complaint filed around this commission. Your response to what they’re saying? And your concerns about what you heard yesterday?

KRISTEN CLARKE: One thing that deeply concerns me about the commission is the way that it’s structured. It is indeed stacked with individuals who have made a career out of pushing voter suppression efforts across our country. But, you know, yesterday’s meeting was not one that allowed for a real or robust discussion about some of the false claims and data that had been put on the table by Kris Kobach, by John Lott and others. You had Gardner in there, who rightfully rejected Kobach’s claims about fraudulent votes in his state as reckless, but he truly was a lone voice of dissent in that room. The commission put together a panel. There were about 12 people that the public had an opportunity to listen to yesterday, across a day—a very long day, three panels. Every single speaker that presented to the commission yesterday was a white male. And what I find problematic about that is that voting is something that is central in American democracy. Voting, at the end of the day, is about inclusion of all voices. It’s about having the voices of all people heard.

And this is a commission that has a preconceived agenda and is—its existence is solely to lay the groundwork for what will ultimately be an aggressive national push of laws like photo ID requirements, burdensome proof-of-citizenship requirements, John Lott’s new and wacky suggestion that we use gun-type background checks on voters. I mean, this is what the commission is racing towards. It wants a world in which we normalize voter suppression. It wants a world in which we make the norm restrictions on access to the ballot box.

One of the reasons why the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is fighting this administration in court and working to push back against this commission is because we see its agenda as ultimately dangerous to American democracy. When we were in court two weeks ago, we—the judge was scolding of the administration for its failure to be transparent. During their first meeting, they failed to disclose the documents and materials that they relied upon in their entirety. And the administration had to beg the court for forgiveness. In the lead-up to yesterday’s meeting, we saw a little more disclosure this time, a little bit more transparency, but a lot of those materials that the commission is marshaling are false false data, like Kobach’s claims that thousands of people voted fraudulently in New Hampshire’s election. We know that that’s not true. We know that Kobach is somebody who has targeted students. He’s targeted African Americans and Latinos throughout his career with voting restrictions, and is somebody who has made a career out of making it harder for vulnerable communities in our country to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman?

ARI BERMAN: Well, I think what Kobach said about New Hampshire is very revealing about what this commission plans to do. First, he takes a fact, which is that thousands of people used out-of-state driver’s licenses in New Hampshire, which is totally legal; completely misconstrues a fact, completely legitimate fact, as evidence of fraud; repeats that fraud in a Breitbart column. It’s all over the place. It’s on Drudge Report. It was covered everywhere on the right as proof of fraud, even though it was nothing of the sort. Then he’s using that false claim of fraud to attack same-day voter registration in New Hampshire, which is really important, because Election Day registration, the ability to register and vote on the same day, increases voter turnout more than any other thing you can do, because a lot of people don’t register before the election. They miss cutoffs. Remember in New York’s primary, you had to switch parties like six months before the election. We have these crazy kind of laws. Election Day registration allows a lot of people who might otherwise not participate to be able to cast a ballot. And these are the kind of things they’re going after. They’re both going after policies that make it easier to vote, like Election Day registration, which are so important, and then they’re trying to put in place all of these policies to make it harder to vote.

You look at what’s happening in Kansas. Kobach cited his home state. Well, in Kansas, instead of Election Day registration, they have a law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, meaning you have to show your passport, your birth certificate or naturalization papers to be able to register to vote, which a lot of people don’t have those documents. That has blocked one in seven Kansans from being able to register to vote—over 30,000 people. So, Kobach’s home state is a microcosm of voter suppression efforts, and he’s trying to export these efforts all across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about the significance of an email by Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Von Spakovsky wrote, “If they are picking mainstream Republican officials and/or academics to man this commission [then] it will be an abject failure because there aren’t any that know anything about this or who have paid any attention to this issue over the years.” Talk about his significance and this email.

ARI BERMAN: Well, this is such an incendiary email, really a smoking gun email. Hans von Spakovsky, who’s at the Heritage Foundation, is a member of this commission, has been really the leading voice pushing the myth of voter fraud and pushing voter suppression efforts both inside and outside the government. When he was in the George W. Bush Justice Department in the Civil Rights Division, he was described by former lawyers as the point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division history of protecting voting rights. So he’s a very, very controversial figure.

He sent an email to Attorney General Jeff Sessions back in February of 2017, so months before this commission had even been constituted, saying that they should exclude Democrats, saying that they should exclude mainstream Republicans, saying they should exclude academics—all of the people who have expertise in this issue should be excluded. And this shows that the fix was in from the very, very beginning. That Mike Pence, at the first meeting of this commission, said, “We have no preconceived notions of—or preordained results”—in fact, von Spakovsky’s email shows the exact opposite, that the Democrats who were chosen were mere fig leaves, that the power of this commission was always going to rest with people like Kris Kobach and Hans von Spakovsky, who have lied over and over about voter fraud, and that legitimate officials in the Republican Party who have studied this issue, secretaries of states who are Republicans, academics who have long looked at this issue, would be excluded from the very, very beginning. So we knew from the beginning this commission was illegitimate, because it was predicated on a gigantic lie, but this email just confirms exactly what they were planning to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Kristen, I wanted to end by asking you about this report from Reuters: The ideologically divided U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday handed a win to Republicans in Texas by putting on hold rulings that said electoral districts drawn by state lawmakers discriminated against minority voters. Talk about the significance of this.

KRISTEN CLARKE: You know, what’s unfortunate is that this means that maps, redistricting maps, that have been found to be unconstitutional will now stand in the state of Texas. Texas is an interesting place. This is a state now where multiple courts in 2017 have found that state officials have acted with discriminatory purpose, with discriminatory animus, when it comes to voting. And that’s whether we’re talking about by instituting a restrictive photo ID law or in the way that they’ve redrawn district boundaries in different parts of the state. It’s remarkable, in 2017, to have a court find that elected officials are acting with animus. The Supreme Court’s decision yesterday means that residents across that state have to live in a world in which unconstitutional maps are in place. It’s my hope that all of these cases now pending in Texas and across the country reach a resolution point soon.

In 2013, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case called Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder that truly opened up the floodgates of voter suppression across our country. We have seen voting discrimination at a race—at a rate and intensity that we have not seen in previous years. The election integrity commission is part of this nationwide assault that we are seeing on the right to vote. One other significant development yesterday was, members of Congress, including Senator Schumer, issued calls for defunding the commission, and have called for the commission to be disbanded. At the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, that’s something that we are fighting for, because we deem this commission to be an unprecedented tool to promote voter suppression. We deem this to be a vehicle to incentivize state officials across the country to put in place barriers to the franchise. And we should be at a point in American democracy where we’re working on making it more inclusive, where we’re working to expand participation rates, and working to figure out how everyone can have their voice heard. And at every turn, this administration has made clear their hostility to the right to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Kristen Clarke, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, organization filed a complaint against Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, vice chair of President Trump’s election integrity commission, as he calls it. And Ari Berman, now with Mother Jones, he covers voting rights.

When we come back, will the 9/11 case finally go to trial? We’ll speak with Harper’s editor Andrew Cockburn. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “I Know a Woman” by Jaspar Lepak. Go to democracynow.org to see our full segment on Edie Windsor, the marriage equality pioneer who died Tuesday here in New York at the age of 88. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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