What to know about Trump's election commission as it faces pushback, legal challenges

The commission is headed by VP Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kobach.

July 19, 2017, 2:16 PM

— -- President Donald Trump's controversial Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity is holding its first meeting Wednesday morning amid pushback from state election officials and legal challenges from privacy and civil rights groups.

What to know about the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity

Through an executive order signed on May 11, the president created the commission "in order to promote fair and honest Federal elections," according to the order. The commission will review "improper" and "fraudulent" voter registration and voting.

Critics of the newly-formed panel say that its true purpose is to validate repeated false claims by Trump that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election, and that its review could lead to restrictive voting laws that will suppress votes nationwide.

The commission is headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, both Republicans. Seven of the commission members are Republican, and five are Democrats.

"They're claiming that it's bipartisan -- but it is led by Republicans, dominated by Republicans and stacked with the nation's strongest proponents of voting restrictions,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which called the commission a "sham."

Commission's request for voter data met with pushback and legal challenges

On June 28, Kobach sent election officials in every state an unprecedented request to turn over to the commission "publicly-available data from state voter rolls and feedback on how to improve election integrity" by July 14.

In response, election officials in 21 states and the District of Columbia refused to submit any data, citing privacy concerns, while eight states said they won’t submit data unless the commission pays them or goes through a formal request process, according to a review by the non-profit, non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice. Seventeen states agreed to submit publicly available voter information to the commission as requested.

So far, 14 lawsuits have been filed against the commission over its request to collect nationwide voter data that is typically held only by state and local authorities, and not by the federal government.

Marc Rotenberg, the President and Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which filed for a temporary restraining order in a Washington, D.C. federal court, said "the commission has violated the constitutional right to informational privacy” and “poses an imminent risk to registered voters across the country."

EPIC claims that the commission's demand for detailed voter histories violates privacy laws and that directing state election officials to send voter records to an unsecure website and proposing to publish partial social security numbers could enable identity theft and financial fraud.

In response, the administration claimed in court filings that the requested data is “already made publicly available by the states” and that the commission “has established reasonable measures to protect the security of the voter data by using a secure method to transfer the data and storing any data in the White House’s information systems.”

Nonetheless, the commission on July 10 asked states to hold off submitting their data until a court has ruled in the Washington, D.C. case. A ruling could come any day, said experts.

Hundreds of voters un-registered to vote amid hacking fears

It’s been reported that hundreds of voters across the country have withdrawn their voter registrations out of fear of hacking or misuse of their personal data.

For example, Amber McReynolds, the Denver Director of Elections, told ABC News that there had been a 2,800 percent jump in voters unregistering since the commission’s request for voter data. Denver tracked a record of 600-plus voter withdrawals in the lead-up to July 14, when Secretary of State Wayne Williams released to the commission information such as a voters' names, party affiliations and where they voted. A normal week typically sees eight, McReynolds noted.

“Colorado is the number-one state in terms of registration rate across the country,” said McReynolds.

Between June 28 and July 13, 3,394 Coloradans had withdrawn, a spokeswoman for Williams confirmed to ABC News.

Chris Winters, Vermont's Deputy Secretary of State, said 372 voters asked to unregister via written authorization, despite the office’s discouragement of it.

In Florida, Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Michael Ertel told the Orlando Sentinel that he received 15 calls from voters wanting to “unregister,” and convinced them against it by reminding them that the June 30 voter rolls had already been provided to the commission.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said his office had received a “number of emotionally-charged responses” from voters to unregister, and said the concern comes from a lack of information surrounding the commission.

Merrill said constituents haven’t been presented with the necessary data to “make an informed decision on their personal position,” because of the state's lack of knowledge “from the commission as a whole.”

But voters may get more clarity from the Wednesday meeting, expected to “consist of a ceremonial swearing in of commission members, introductions and statements from members, a discussion of the commission's charge and objectives, possible comments or presentations from invited experts, and a discussion of next steps and related matters,” according to the White House website.

Saisha Talwar contributed to this report

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