Exclusive: How the Threat of Exposure Killed Trump’s ‘Voter Fraud’ Commission

Commission May Be Gone, But Its Hidden Agenda — Voter Suppression — Could Live On

Kris Kobach, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Matthew Dunlap
Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap superimposed over President Donald Trump announcing formation of the Election Integrity Commission. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Michael McIntee / White House / YouTube and C-SPAN / YouTube.

Was President Donald Trump’s controversial “election integrity” commission shut down because its secret inner workings and true purpose were about to be exposed? In an exclusive interview with WhoWhatWhy, Matt Dunlap, one of the few Democrats on the commission and the man who successfully sued for internal documents to be released, says he believes the answer is “yes.”

Though Dunlap, Maine’s Secretary of State, was appointed to the commission, he was denied access to documents and kept in the dark about its work after he criticized the tactics of its vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach is an architect of many voter suppression measures and has perpetuated the myth that there is a “voter fraud epidemic.”

Shortly after Dunlap won a lawsuit on the issue, and a court ruled that he has a right to the information, Trump pulled the plug on the commission. The Department of Justice then notified Dunlap that, as a result, it would no longer provide him with access to the documents. Undeterred, Dunlap says he’ll continue fighting on behalf of the public’s right to this information, even if it means heading back to court.

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview, Dunlap gives WhoWhatWhy the inside story of what went down behind the scenes and fuels the suspicion of election-integrity experts that the true purpose of the commission was a national voter suppression effort aimed to help Republicans.

While the shutdown of the commission was widely hailed as a victory over those like Kobach and former Federal Election Commission member Hans von Spakovsky, who want to put in place federal voting restrictions, the truth is more troubling.

The advisory panel may have been shuttered, but Trump has asked the Department of Homeland Security to continue its mission — away from the prying eyes of the public.

We felt that Dunlap’s account of what happened is so powerful and important that we decided to print it (with light edits for clarity) in its entirety. You will not want to miss reading it.


WWW: Before we get into what’s next for you in your crusade for documents that would illuminate the activities of this commission, can you provide a little background for our readers? For instance, what justification if any did the commission give for denying you access to commission documents in the first place?

Dunlap: Well, they never really gave a justification. This kind of turned into a snowball pretty quickly. Going back to the formation of the commission — of course, the commission was formed because the president claimed after the election that he would have won the popular vote if three-to-five million votes had not been cast illegally. So, [when] the President of the United States says something like that, it kinda gets everybody up and gets their attention.

So people began talking about forming this commission. I don’t know who that included — I was very much not in that loop. Then in the spring, I got a call from Secretary Kobach from Kansas, and he said, “They’re talking about putting together a commission, would you be interested in serving on it?” and then I said, “Well, you know, I am not looking for extra work, but let me kick it around,” and I talked to my folks, and they are like, “Absolutely. If they’re doing something like that, we certainly want to be there and we want to tell our story.”

And [I] didn’t hear anything for quite a while, and then Secretary Kobach called me again on May 10 to let me know the next day the president was going to be signing the Executive Order, and they weren’t going to be putting any names in the press release, but they might mention a few people and there might be a little press about it; there might be some media interest… some media interest; the next day, it took me two hours to get out of the house because the phone kept ringing. All the national media outlets were all over it.

And again, there was another void, and then I got a call from the White House, probably about the middle of June, letting me know that they’re going to have an organizational conference call, and then maybe scheduling a meeting sometime in July.

At our one meeting where we took testimony, everybody that came to the commission was a friend of Hans von Spakovsky. We didn’t have any diversity there at all. So, you know, it seems to me, in hindsight that what they were really looking for was a product, not a process. In fact, I think the process got in the way of the product, and that’s one of the reasons why they pulled the plug on it.

So we had an organizational conference call June 28 — it lasted about an hour — and that’s where the requests for voter information came from. It was kinda one of those, “Oh, by the way, to get started, don’t you think we ought to get the voter information?”

And I had said, “You want to be careful what you ask for and how you ask for it,” you only want to be asking for information that would be publicly available, and you want to make sure you’re asking for it, not demanding it. Because I know how election officials are, right? They’re jealous guardians of that data.

So that started the first firestorm. And then, we finally did meet in July. We got sworn in, and people basically made very lofty statements about elections, and that was the July meeting. And then probably about the end of August, I got a call that we were having another meeting in September in New Hampshire. And the New Hampshire meeting was pretty electric.

Secretary Kobach had written his op-ed in Breitbart News claiming widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire, which was really more of a rhetorical construct than legal reality. And I challenged him on that, quite strongly, and after that meeting I just stopped getting any communications at all.

And I have a large department to run — I’m one of three Secretaries of State that oversees motor vehicles, and I do elections, corporations, commissions, and archives — so there really are no off-days. And I wasn’t paying a helluva lot of attention to it until I started getting media inquiries about “What’s your reaction to this story that we’re hearing about what the commission’s working on?”

I hadn’t heard anything, so I sent an email: “What’s the news? What’s going on?”

Got no response.

Then the keystone event was the arrest of Ronald Williams, the researcher for the commission. He was arrested in Maryland on charges of possession of child pornography, and it was reported by the Washington Post on October 14.

On the heels of that, the Minnesota Secretary of State sent me an email from the Minnesota Voters Alliance touting that they had been invited to present testimony at the December meeting of the commission, which was the first I’d heard of a December meeting of the commission.

At that point I got kind of mad, and I wrote a formal letter saying, “Look, I’m asking these questions because I don’t know the answers. What are we working on? Who are we talking to? What are our internal communications? What’s our schedule?”

And about ten days later, I got a response from the White House saying they were reviewing my request with counsel. And at that point, I kinda scratched my head and I thought, “Am I or am I not on this commission?”

So I sent a couple of clarifying emails like, “Look, I’m not looking for the nuclear codes here. I’m really just looking for the basic reference documents. What is our schedule?” And got no response.

And at that point I had been put in touch with the folks at American Oversight. Some people in Washington had said, “You’re doing the right thing, you’re asking the right questions, but they’re not going to answer you. You’re just one guy, you need some legal help. You should get some outside counsel.”

Matthew Dunlap

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. Photo credit: Michael McIntee / White House / YouTube

And they had suggested this mechanism of filing a complaint. And my thought was [to] get their attention, let them know I’m serious. I really want to be a part of this. I’m not trying to throw the thing in the woods, I’m trying to be effective.

‘Cuz I’m not a “lawsuit guy.” I don’t go around filing lawsuits. My initial instinct is, pick up the phone and let’s talk about this. And I had kinda hoped that when we filed the complaint, that somebody from the White House would say, “Look, you don’t need a lawsuit. We can work with you. Give us some time.”

And that would’ve been fine. But instead, they basically said, “We’ll see you in court.” And then the name-calling started: Secretary Kobach said I was paranoid, my suit was baseless. Hans von Spakovsky said that I should be ashamed of pulling a media stunt. The organization that J. Christian Adams works for said that Matt Dunlap is “the fresh new face of victim and fragility culture.”

And remember: I’m asking for a schedule. I’m asking for basic documents.

So we decided to turn up the heat a little bit, and in November, they filed a preliminary injunction. The judge took all the briefs, and then on December 22, ruled about 90% in my favor: He said that as a member of the commission, I’m absolutely entitled to all this information — didn’t order them to give it to me, but said I was entitled to it. And [he] also didn’t specify which documents out of the Vaughn Index they were supposed to give me.

I think the judge worded [it] that way probably presuming that you’re talking about the Department of Justice, and they know the law, and they should be doing this without being prompted.

And I half-wondered after the ruling, if this might not happen. I said to one of the attorneys, “I wonder if the president just doesn’t simply dissolve the commission.” And on January 3, in the evening we got an email with a press release from the White House saying that the president had dissolved the commission.

My first question at that point was: Did that absolve the government of the force of the court order? And the attorney said, “No. Certainly, historically, that has not been the case.”

But then we got the letter Friday from the Department of Justice saying they’re not going to give me anything. They’re not going to let me know anything that’s been worked on.

And to give you sort of a hint of what might be there — I don’t know what’s there — but [White House Press Secretary] Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in the press conference about this, said that the president had directed that the material, including the preliminary findings of the commission, would be sent over to Homeland Security for further work.

“Preliminary findings?” Now, I just described to you all of our activity; we had two public meetings, only one of which we even took testimony.

There was never a discussion of a scope of work: what kind of things we’re going to be looking for, what we were driving at for high-level and low-level recommendations, detail — nothing. But somewhere, there are preliminary findings.

So we’re going to push the case; we’ve asked them again for the information. If they don’t give it to us, we’ll probably wind up back in court. Because I think there’s something there that they don’t want us to see.

So when you couple that with a designation of election systems as critical infrastructure by Homeland Security — which gives them very broad regulatory latitude — you start putting in place the elements for Homeland Security to basically tell the state how to run elections. And that’s not done through legislation; it’s not done through policy-making; it would be done through the side door: by rule or by executive order. There’s a pretty good example of what could happen with this.

Now, I imagine that there’s salacious stuff in there. I’m sure they call me a bunch of horrible names. I don’t care about that, because that’s middle school stuff. I care about the work. I want to know what it is they were thinking that they didn’t want the rest of the members of the commission to know.

And when I say “salacious stuff,” there was another one of these suits that came out in the summertime, and there was an email from February that came to the possession of the Department of Justice that, as it turned out, had been written by Hans von Spakovsky. He denied it at first, but then the Heritage Foundation [confirmed Spakovsky had written it.] He was really wringing his hands — very disappointed that they were contemplating putting Democrats on the commission. And he said that even mainstream Republicans would probably mean the whole thing would end in failure.

Well, he never walked that back; he never apologized for it. In response to queries about it, he said, “We’re actually working pretty well together.”

So I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff like that; and again, I don’t care about that. I mean, sure, that would be embarrassing to have that type of material out in the public eye, but I think what’s really probably more concerning is what types of models were they gonna propose, you know?

Were they looking at things like voter registration deadlines, making it a federal requirement for a federal election, say, to have a real ID in order to obtain a federal ballot? Maybe different restrictions on things like absentee balloting, voter ID laws, citizenship tests — that sort of thing.

Who knows what they were going to propose? All we can really do is speculate. But I do know there’s something they don’t want me to see because they’re fighting awful hard to keep it away from me.


WWW: Let’s just be blunt about it, then: Do you believe the commission was dissolved to keep these documents out of your reach and away from the public eye? As opposed to Trump’s stated reason that it was because states weren’t complying with the commission’s requests for voter data?

Dunlap: I absolutely think that. And I say that because, to say that the lack of voter information caused this thing to buckle is ludicrous at the most basic level.

The purpose for getting all the voter files was to try to determine people that were registered in more than one state. Now, first of all: that’s not against the law. Typically it’s more of an administrative oversight than anything.

So if somebody moves from Arizona to California, or from Florida to North Carolina, and they’re registered to vote in their original state and they re-register in the next state, there’s a space on our voter registration cards where you can write-in where you registered before and, at least in theory, mechanically, the registrar of voters will contact your previous jurisdiction to have you taken off the voter rolls. Now that certainly doesn’t happen in real-time because it’s largely a paper-based process; sometimes it takes a couple years, certainly weeks or months. Sometimes it doesn’t ever happen at all. But you haven’t committed a crime. It is a crime to vote in more than one state or more than one jurisdiction in the same election.

But the information in the voter file — certainly in Maine — is so high-level: it’s basically your name, your physical address, the year of your birth, the precincts you live in, and whether or not you voted in the last two election cycles — not even your full date of birth.

So there could be a lot of Matt Dunlaps around the country. Determining whether or not they’re the same guy requires much more detailed information that you’re not going to get out of a basic voter file.


WWW: Isn’t that one of the major criticisms of Crosscheck, the system Kobach developed to detect voter fraud?

Dunlap: Yeah and, I mean, Crosscheck is really a boatload of work, because if you have the appearance of people registered in more than one state, you really have to drill down to find out if it’s the same person. And even if it is the same person, what we’re finding is they’re only voting in one state, they’re not voting in two states.

And, even with the last four digits of a Social Security Number, which gets about 99.9% of them, you still get false-positives, because there are people with the same name that will have the same last four digits of a Social Security Number.

It’s just a lot of legwork, and we don’t find anything. We don’t find that people are running from state to state voting in multiple jurisdictions, which is sort of what they allege. It just doesn’t happen.

So the president saying that, “Oh, we didn’t get the voter information; therefore, the commission can’t do it’s work; therefore I’m gonna dissolve the commission.” That doesn’t compute. At all.


WWW: As both Maine’s Secretary of State and a member of the commission, how did you feel about states that refused that request?

Dunlap: Well, we were one of them. We treated it like we would treat any request for information. Under Maine law, the voter file is available only to a qualified entity. And a qualified entity could mean a political party, a candidate, an issue campaign, or a research institution — which this commission would qualify under.

But here’s the thing: It has to be kept confidential. You can’t share it with anybody. And in the original request for data that was issued on June 28th, they said, “Be advised that any information you send will be made public.” Well, we couldn’t comply. We control that information. This is something that I don’t think people understand, is that in the world of elections, states occupy the field, not the federal government.

The federal government — yeah, they got the Federal Elections Commission, and that sounds pretty big, but it’s just basically congressional campaign finance. It’s nothing else.

And even to the degree that elections are administered in a state like Maine — yeah you know, I’m the chief elections officer, I print the ballots and I certify the tabulation of the vote, but the actual election is run by individual town clerks. So it’s very diffuse and very decentralized. So, the voter file request — that was a straight administrative request that we couldn’t comply with because of the structure of the law. I mean it really was just mainly following the law. Other secretaries had to turn it over because their laws stipulated they had to. They couldn’t withhold it. And there are states that make their voter files available for commercial purposes. We don’t. So it’s different all around the country. ”

Mike Pence, Kris Kobach

Vice President Mike Pence, chair for the Election Integrity Commission with Vice Chair Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (right). Photo credit: Michael McIntee / White House / YouTube

Even Kobach couldn’t comply with the request. In Mississippi — the Secretary of State there is a very conservative Republican, and his response to the commission — he said the commission could go jump into the Gulf of Mexico. And Mississippi was a pretty good launch point.

So the reaction to that request was very, very vertical. It got a lot of people’s attention. That’s when my inbox started to fill up and I started to get tons of postcards urging me to resign from the commission. But, I mean, this is more or less the sort of a thing where I never thought we were going to find very much anyway.


WWW: After he terminated the commission, it seemed Trump would try to keep the investigation alive through Homeland Security — something you seemed rather disturbed by. You claimed in a press release this would allow the investigation to continue “under the cover of darkness.” However, DHS seems to be off the table — at least, for the time being — since they’ve released a statement that this matter doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction. However, there are still concerns that it could reappear some time in the future, possibly through the Department of Justice.

Dunlap: Yeah, that’s entirely possible. And I think that transparency was the main reason why the commission was completely out-of-sync with governing statutes.

The Federal Advisory Committee Act is entirely built around public input, transparency, [and] soliciting opinions and input from a broad spectrum of political discourse. We weren’t doing any of that. We weren’t soliciting anything.

At our one meeting where we took testimony, everybody that came to the commission was a friend of Hans von Spakovsky. We didn’t have any diversity there at all. So, you know, it seems to me, in hindsight that what they were really looking for was a product, not a process. In fact, I think the process got in the way of the product, and that’s one of the reasons why they pulled the plug on it.


WWW: Can you point to anything specific that makes you believe this investigation, conducted by a federal agency, would be any less transparent — or at least equally opaque — as the one run by this commission?

Dunlap: Well, we do an awful lot of work with Homeland Security, and Homeland Security is a very curious agency. It was created after the 9/11 attacks, of course, but one of the things that they manage is the implementation of the Real ID act. And Real ID is something that we fought very strenuously for many years until, finally, they just crushed us.

They were already tying off access to many federal facilities. I was getting calls from fire chiefs because their firefighters couldn’t go to the National Fire Academy because of Homeland Security — they didn’t have a Real ID or a passport. You had caterers who couldn’t get their delivery trucks onto military bases because they didn’t have Real ID. UPS drivers. You name it. I mean, they were putting the squeeze. And the legislature finally folded and they moved to comply with Real ID.

I won’t get into the whole horror story of Real ID, because it’s a long horror story, and I’ve been on the ground floor of that, too; that was actually my first federal working group, which was the negotiated rulemaking committee to establish minimum standards for issuance of state ID cards and driver’s licenses that was created under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. And that whole driver’s license piece from the 9/11 Commission recommendations was moved from federal DOT to Homeland Security. And as part of the authority that was granted to Homeland Security, they were given the ability to amend their rules, at any time, without notice.

Hans von Spakovsky

Hans von Spakovsky, former member of the Federal Election Commission. Photo credit: LBJ Library / Flickr

So when you couple that with a designation of election systems as critical infrastructure by Homeland Security — which gives them very broad regulatory latitude — you start putting in place the elements for Homeland Security to basically tell the state how to run elections. And that’s not done through legislation; it’s not done through policy-making; it would be done through the side door: by rule or by executive order. There’s a pretty good example of what could happen with this.

Now, to Homeland Security’s defense, they really stepped in it with this international hacking thing. And when I say they “stepped in it,” they went very public, very hard, very early, without having any idea of what they were talking about.

And it broke a lot of relationships with state elections officials. Because we were all telling them: “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Our systems are not centralized; you can’t flip a switch and hack our elections.” I mean, we’re all paper ballots in Maine; you can’t hack a paper ballot. And so I think they’ve actually been making an effort to try to repair those relationships and be more collaborative with us.

And what I’m hearing in the back chatter is that they want nothing to do with this, ‘cuz here they are starting to make some progress in working with states, and now this president drops this in their laps and says, “Go find voter fraud,” and I don’t think they want anything to do with it.

Because I think they’re right: I don’t think this is their charge, because there is no federal agency that oversees elections. Like I said, going back to how the states occupy the field, the federal government doesn’t issue driver’s licenses, that’s why they did this big ‘in-around’ with the Real ID Act, saying, “Okay, well you don’t have to comply, but if you don’t, your citizens can’t fly.”

You know, it’s that type of stuff that they do to get around the Tenth Amendment, which, you know, I don’t even know why we have a Tenth Amendment anymore. [Editor’s Note: The Tenth Amendment reserves for the states powers not granted to the federal government.]


WWW: Any final thoughts?

Dunlap: I think people should stay in tune to this, because obviously, there’s a lot more yet to come, and we’re not going to give up and we’re not going to stop fighting.

You can follow WhoWhatWhy Election Integrity reporter Sean Steinberg on Twitter @the_seanologue.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from President Trump (C-SPAN / YouTube).

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