Kobach’s House of Cards

AP Photo/Holly Ramer

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner at a meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity on September 12, 2017, in Manchester, New Hampshire. 

Conservatives who have long stoked the myth of widespread voter fraud are discovering what happens when you get a national platform for your conspiracy theories: The house of cards starts to collapse.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach won a megaphone for his disputed voter fraud theories as vice chairman of President Trump’s “election integrity” commission, but he was forced to eat crow at the panel’s second public meeting Tuesday in New Hampshire. Having claimed in a Breitbart column that New Hampshire’s Senate race “was stolen through voter fraud,” Kobach faced such a torrent of evidence to the contrary that he publicly equivocated, wondering aloud “if it’s even possible to condense what is really a complex legal issue into an 800-word column.”

Kobach’s fellow commissioner Hans von Spakovsky, a Heritage Foundation scholar who’s led the conservative voter fraud brigade, also fell flat on his face this week. Von Spakovsky was outed as the author of a Heritage Foundation email that urged the administration in February—three months before the commission’s official launch—not to appoint any Democrats, “mainstream Republicans” or even “academics” to the panel. Von Spakovsky discredited himself further by telling a reporter that he knew nothing of and did not write the email—a claim at odds with the Heritage Foundation’s statement that he wrote it.

The commission’s public meeting was an embarrassment on multiple fronts. One lead witness, John Lott, Jr., a conservative writer and gun rights advocate, who last wrote about voting issues more than a decade ago, suggested with a straight face that the solution to so-called fraud is to subject all voters to the same exhaustive background checks imposed on gun owners. The meeting’s agenda wandered from voter confidence, to voter turnout, to registration lists, to supposed double voting, to voting machine security, with no perceptible focus.

The main purpose of the forum was to trot out evidence of supposed voter fraud, and to fault state and local election officials for allegedly failing to track and prosecute it. Another witness, professional voter fraud investigator Ken Block, complained that election officials have failed to turn over reams of data at no cost to conservative researchers like him. Never mind that state and local election officials are knocking themselves out to run elections on a shoestring amid genuine crises, such as aging voting machines and attempted Russian hacking—issues this commission has all but ignored.

But the biggest embarrassment was Kobach himself, who faced a public dressing down from Democrats on the commission for his unsubstantiated Breitbart claim that fraud changed the outcome of the New Hampshire Senate race, which Democrat Maggie Hassan won by 1,017 votes. Kobach also alleged that “illegal voting” may have been responsible for swinging four electoral votes to Hillary Clinton.

Kobach’s proof? A GOP state legislator turned up 5,313 same-day registrants who had not obtained New Hampshire driver’s licenses within ten months of voting—evidence enough to Kobach that “they never were bona fide residents of the state.” But New Hampshire does not require voters to have in-state licenses or even to be residents, only that they be “domiciled” in the state, meaning that they spend most of their time there. That covers college students, frequently the targets of voter suppression efforts, and New Hampshire college towns report the most voters with out-of-state IDs.

Commission member Bill Gardner, a Democrat who serves as New Hampshire’s Secretary of State, told Kobach that his column created a “problem” because it called the state’s “real and valid” election into question. Gardner added: “I hope we all learn from this.” Commissioner Matthew Dunlap, another Democrat and Maine’s Secretary of State, was more blunt.

“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, then that’s proof that you robbed a bank,” said Dunlap. “I think it’s a reckless statement to make.”

Under fire since its inception, and facing lawsuits from multiple watchdogs and civil rights groups, Kobach’s commission now faces pressure from grassroots activists and Democrats on Capitol Hill to disband entirely. Protesters gathered outside Tuesday’s meeting, which took place at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, shouted “Shame!” and “It’s a sham,” tweeted Politico’s Josh Gerstein. Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer, of New York, has called for the commission to disband, and 32 Senate Democrats have signed onto a bill that would nullify the Trump executive order that established it.

“There is a lot of mobilization—there is litigation, there is public advocacy, there is Hill advocacy,” says Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Gupta warned that Kobach’s end goal is to make it easier for states to purge their voter rolls, and that the commission’s false fraud narrative could encourage states to enact laws that restrict voter access.

Individual commissioners also face mounting pressure to step down. Hassan and the entire New Hampshire congressional delegation, all Democrats, want Gardner to resign from the commission. (He has said he will stay.) Democratic election lawyer Bob Bauer has called for von Spakovsky to step down, arguing that “his position on the Commission has become untenable.”

The commission’s blatantly partisan composition and agenda now furnish “more than enough evidence of a Hatch Act violation,” Republican ethics lawyer Richard Painter told The Washington Post, referring to the 1939 law that bars most federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity. The commission already faces a Hatch Act complaint, filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Kobach’s commission may survive such challenges, but it’s become such an embarrassment that Trump, well known for his aversion to criticism and bad press, may be tempted to shut it down himself.

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