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How state election officials see Trump’s voter fraud probe

July 19, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
President Trump’s claim that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election is unsubstantiated, but his Commission on Election Integrity is still charged with investigating the matter. What do state officials who actually run elections think? William Brangham talks to Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: President Trump continues to repeat the unsubstantiated claim that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election. The commission he set up to look into this has sparked its own controversy.

William Brangham reports.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Every time voter fraud occurs, it cancels out the vote of a lawful citizen and undermines democracy.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The first meeting of the Commission on Election Integrity convened with a presidential defense of its mission.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Throughout the campaign, and even after, people would come up to me and express their concerns about voter inconsistencies and irregularities which they saw, in some cases having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So far, those allegations remain unproven, but the commission is pressing ahead.

Last month, it sent letters to every state, asking for voter information, including names, birthdays and partial Social Security numbers.

Seventeen states, governed by Republicans and Democrats, as well as the District of Columbia, refused to comply. Many others said they will provide only limited information that’s already publicly available.

Today, the president criticized those states who’ve refused to go along.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: One has to wonder what they’re worried about. And I ask the vice president and I ask the commission, what are they worried about? There’s something. There always is.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Just after the election, when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes, Mr. Trump tweeted, again, with no evidence whatsoever, that the vote count was skewed — quote — “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

The commission co-chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is a Republican, says the country deserves a hard, dispassionate look at the issue.

KRIS KOBACH, Secretary of State, Kansas: For a long time, there has been lingering doubt among many Americans about integrity and fairness of elections. And it’s not a new issue at all. If you look at polling data, it goes back decades.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The panel is chaired by Vice President Pence, and in addition to Kobach, members include current and former secretaries of state from Indiana, New Hampshire, Maine and Ohio, among others.

But critics of the commission warn that stoking fears of alleged fraud will be used later to justify a crackdown on voting rights.

Rick Hasen is a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and an election law expert.

RICK HASEN, University of California, Irvine: I’m concerned that it’s going to be something that is just going to try to support the president’s agenda, claiming that there’s a lot of voter fraud, and use that to make it harder for people to be able to register to vote.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Already, the commission is facing at least seven lawsuits questioning its transparency, conduct and even its existence.

We turn now to two officials who actually run elections in their states.

Matthew Dunlap is the secretary of state for Maine. He is a Democrat, and he’s also a member of the president’s commission. And he was at today’s meeting.

We’re also joined by Michele Reagan. She is a Republican and she is Arizona’s secretary of state.

Welcome to you both.

MATTHEW DUNLAP, Secretary of State, Maine: Thank you for having us.

MICHELE REAGAN, Secretary of State, Arizona: Thank you for having us.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Matthew, I would love to start with you first.

What is your general hope that this commission — what do you hope it will accomplish?

MATTHEW DUNLAP: Well, my general hope is that actually we do something to bolster voter confidence in how we conduct elections in this country.

I think we have an awful lot to be proud of. No one is questioning the legitimacy of the outcome of the 2016 election. There are some lingering questions about how elections have been conducted, who was able to vote legally or not.

And I think, and based on my experience in the state of Maine, I think we can very, very proud of what our local election officials have done to make sure that their neighbors get to exercise their democratic right of self-governance.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Michele Reagan, I know you are a supporter broadly of this commission and its aims.

As you know, the commission was set up in part because of the president’s concern that there had been some voter fraud in the past election. I’m curious. You were running the election in Arizona back in 2016. Did you have any instances of fraud in your state?

MICHELE REAGAN: Well, I can’t speak, obviously, for other states, but I know, in Arizona, we have a number of measures that we use to prevent fraud.

And that’s not to say fraud never happens. Certainly, when we hear allegations of that, we take it very seriously. But it’s important to note Arizona has some laws on the books that keep it very safe from fraud, massive fraud.

One is the showing proof of I.D. at the polling places. Another is proof of citizenship when registering to vote. A lot of states don’t have these laws. And so, speaking from Arizona’s point of view, coupled with the fact that we also participate, already, in interstate cross-check systems, for instances, of double voting or double registration, we’re pretty confident in Arizona that we run a really good election.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Matthew Dunlap, as I mentioned in the report prior to this, the commission asked all the states for some types of voter information.

And there was a lot of concern. Many states pushed back. I understand Maine didn’t share its information.

Explain to me, what is the concern? What are you worried about?

MATTHEW DUNLAP: Well, we’re not really worried about anything. We just follow the law.

The request that came from the commission, which, as commission members, we did not review the full text of the letter that went out. We did agree that the information that should be requested should be requested, not demanded, and it should only be that information that would be publicly available to anyone legally entitled to obtain it under those particular state laws.

When we got the request, the letter said that be advised that any information that you provide will be made publicly available for anyone to inspect.

Maine election law specifies that anyone who is qualified to access the voter file must keep it confidential. And that is directory language. Making the list available is discretionary under the law. So, with that direction, it was a mathematical equation for us. We simply could not provide it under those circumstances. And so we didn’t.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Michele Reagan, do you have concerns about this database being compiled here in Washington, D.C.?

MICHELE REAGAN: Well, absolutely we have concerns.

And, again, in Arizona, we just looked to the statutes and the law to tell us exactly what we were going to have to do or not do. And the law is pretty clear that, again, just like in Maine, you can’t take the information via a public records request with the intent of sharing it or posting it publicly or disseminate, you know, giving it out.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Matthew Dunlap, what about this larger concern that has been raised by some people that this commission and its mission is going to be used to justify further national crackdown on voting rights? What do you make of that?

MATTHEW DUNLAP: That’s one of my favorite questions to get out of all of this, is that somehow we’re trying to undo the electoral process.

My position is, is that you have these lingering questions that have been around for a while now about illegal activity around elections. Sunshine is the greatest disinfectant. I have full confidence that everything that’s been claimed will probably be largely debunked.

And what we will find will probably be the product of mistakes and errors and unintended actions that were never meant to become felonies. So I think, you know, with that understanding, I think we’re going to find that we have a really pretty good system that’s very, very decentralized, which actually adds to its level of security against some of the allegations that we have heard about, like the Russian Federation getting involved in hacking our elections.

I think the systems that we have in place, which are run by local election officials, actually will be found to work very, very well, and that American voters should feel pretty good about the systems that help us elect our leadership and decide issues.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Michele Reagan, you heard Matthew here say that he believes the commission will largely debunk many of these claims.

But just today, the co-chairman of the commission, Kris Kobach, said on MSNBC that he says, we may never know whether or not Hillary Clinton in fact won the popular vote. That is an implication that is very likely the potential that three million illegal votes were cast.

Is the head of the commission is making that kind of a statement, does that concern you at all about the thrust of this commission?

MICHELE REAGAN: What really concerns me is the good work that the commission could be doing. And I hope — and I have high hopes that they will look forward to some of these suggestions that states are making.

I would hope that this commission takes what states are doing and determines what is working best, so they can share it with other states.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Michele Reagan, Matthew Dunlap, thank you both very much.

MATTHEW DUNLAP: Thank you for having us.