Hastiness and bungling doomed the Voter Fraud Commission: The case of red-state WV

Photo: Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Last week, President Donald Trump disbanded his controversial voter fraud commission after the group had had just two meetings.

This wasn’t because Trump finally admitted the “millions” of illegal votes he says gave Hillary Clinton the popular vote did not actually exist. Instead, Trump held on to his thoroughly debunked voter-fraud myth — and blamed states for not playing nicely and giving him the proof the commission needed to continue on.

“Despite substantial evidence of voter fraud, many states have refused to provide the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity with basic information relevant to its inquiry,” Trump claimed in a statement sent out by the White House on Jan. 3.

Trump then followed up his official statement with a tweet making it clear he meant “mostly Democrat” states were the ones not cooperating.

Trump’s tweet was not remotely true. In fact, compliance was pretty dismal in both red and blue states.

And, if deep red West Virginia is any indication, it was disorganization and commission overreaches — not liberal obstructionism — that was to blame for the commission’s demise.

‘We would never release Social Security numbers’

It is important to note that West Virginia’s Secretary of State, Republican Mac Warner, wanted nothing more than to be part of Trump’s quest to uncover voter fraud. Even though the president’s claims lacked any proof whatsoever, Warner was thrilled with the idea of the voting commission from the start, especially since he had campaigned — and won — by vowing to take on voter fraud in the state.

“Secretary Warner welcomes President Trump’s interest in shining a bright light on the registration and voting process, particularly in places that have had a history of election fraud and irregularities,” reads a news release from Warner sent out in January 2017, just after Trump made his unsubstantiated claim about “millions” of fraudulent votes.

Then when Trump signed a May 11 executive order that turned the hunt for mostly non-existent fraudulent votes into an official White House Commission, Warner further demonstrated his eagerness to help by pushing to nominate a Democratic clerk from his state, Mark Rhodes, to fill one of the posts.

Yet while Rhodes, a county clerk in Wood County, ultimately took the job, Rhodes admitted to Think Progress that he wasn’t entirely sure how he got the gig — and only found out he got it when his name appeared in a White House press release.

Rhodes may have been a small-town clerk thrust onto high profile commission, but he wasn’t the only one left befuddled with what was happening (and not happening) behind the scenes.

Kris Kobach, the commission’s vice chair, sent a letter to all fifty states on June 28 requesting voter information, including sensitive data.

Yet according to Warner’s office, West Virginia didn’t get one. And at first, officials weren’t sure they ever would.

“Number one, we’ve never received a letter,” Mike Queen, the West Virginia’s Secretary of State’s communications director told the Charleston Post-Gazette on June 30.

He added: “Number two, we can’t see whether every state has received a letter, I don’t know what states were selected or anything like that, but we haven’t received it. Number three, we would never release Social Security numbers.”

Warner’s office finally received the letter on July 3, one of seven states whose notifications were delayed.

But even with the formal letter in hand, and even though he was eager to take on alleged voter fraud, Warner soon found that there was no way he could comply with the commission’s request.

“We’re not going to do anything that would cause West Virginia voters to lose confidence in our ability to provide fair and fraud-free elections,” Queen, Warner’s spokesperson,  told the press on July 11, noting that West Virginia law prevents the Secretary of State from releasing “Social Security numbers, phone numbers, email addresses, driver’s license numbers and other personal information.”

The voter fraud panel made a huge mess of basic logistics

Meanwhile, back in Washington, an impatient Trump was already complaining that states were refusing to comply with his “distinguished” panel.

But Trump’s tweet was sent two days before West Virginia’s notification even arrived.

The president’s kvetch also failed to acknowledge that the “distinguished” voter fraud’s commission’s hastiness had made a real mess of the request, and thus made it a lot harder for states to participate.

In fact, a large number of states — both red and blue — were either prohibited by their own laws from complying, or were simply appalled by the rushed and frenzied overreach of Kobach’s request which failed at due diligence and raised privacy concerns.

In addition, it wasn’t clear whether states even had to comply at all. That’s because the commission likely violated federal rules by rushing out the letter and not submitting the request to states through the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) first.

As the inevitable lawsuits were filed across the country, West Virginia’s Warner decided to comply — but only provided certain information in accordance with the red state’s existing law.

Warner also required the commission to follow procedure, like everyone else, and submit a request and pay the fee to get the voter list it was asking for.

The commission’s bungled, harried request must have come as a bitter disappointment to Warner, a Trump-loving GOP Secretary of State who remained so convinced voter fraud was a pressing issue he set up a hotline prior to the October 7 vote and issued a statement telling West Virginians, “We take election fraud very seriously.”

Rhodes, the WV Democratic county clerk appointed to the commission, clearly tried to give the GOP-led initiative a fair shake — even though he also said that he himself never saw evidence of fraud at home.

But he also said the commission’s priorities were misplaced from the start, and suffered from a lack of a clear focus and direction.

“There was more than just voter fraud on people’s minds,” Rhodes told his local Parkersburg News and Sentinel. “Cyber security was the big thing on everyone’s mind. More communication was wanted between state and federal government on cyber security.”

The disorganization had, from the botched first request, seemed to be the real reason the unfocused commission had failed to gain momentum and compliance, even from red states like West Virginia who were already on the voter fraud bandwagon.

Kobach and Trump were quick to accuse Democrats of stonewalling and dooming the commission to failure as a result.

But when asked to respond to this Democrat-blaming, Rhodes — the West Virginia Democrat who found himself on the front lines of the White House’s voter fraud fight as a member of the panel — simply laughed.