As revealed by newly disclosed documents obtained from the US Department of Justice, a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank tried to have Democrats, mainstream Republican officials, and academics excluded entirely from the taxpayer-funded Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.
In a February 22nd email signed by a Heritage Foundation employee, whose name the Justice Department has chosen to redact, the employee expressed their indignation over the direction the commission’s chairman, Vice President Mike Pence, was headed.
“We are told that the members of this commission are to be named on Tuesday,” the letter says. “We’re also hearing that they are going to make this bipartisan and include Democrats. There isn’t a single Democratic official that will do anything other than obstruct any investigation of voter fraud and issue constant public announcements criticizing the commission and what it is doing, making claims that it is engaged in voter suppression.”
The letter continues: “That decision alone shows how little the WHouse understands about this issue.”
The Heritage employee—potentially Hans von Spakovsky, who was later appointed to the commission—goes on to criticize the Trump administration for failing to consult with Heritage about the appointments. The author asserts that “mainstream Republican officials and/or academics” are unfit to participate in the commission; appointing them would “be an abject failure because there aren’t any that know anything about this.”
No “real experts on the conservative side of this issue” have been called on to guide the commission, the author wrote, “other than Kris Kobach,” the Kansas Secretary of State who now co-chairs the commission alongside the vice president.
Update: Heritage confirmed to Gizmodo that Hans von Spakovsky wrote the letter. The organization’s full statement is below. (After Gizmodo’s story was published, however, ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman released audio from today in which she asks Spakovsky about the letter and he denies writing it.)
The letter was sent in February to Sessions’ aide Peggi Hanrahan, who passed it along to the attorney general as requested. It is clear that an intermediary was involved, despite DOJ’s heavy redactions. The identity of the intermediary, their relationship to the author and to the attorney general, however, remain unknown.
The letter was acquired this month under the Freedom of Information Act by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. In a statement, Campaign Legal Center President Trevor Potter, a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission, criticized Kobach for directing the presidential commission to “undermine citizens’ right to vote.” Potter pointed to now-debunked claims of voter fraud in New Hampshire (a state Hillary Clinton won by a 0.3 percent margin).
In an Sept. 7 op-ed for Breitbart News, Kobach wrote that 5,313 New Hampshire voters were not residents of the state. The only “evidence” he could muster, however, was that the 5,313 had registered to vote with out-of-state driver’s licenses. Kobach forgot—or more likely intentionally ignored in furtherance of his own agenda—that thousands of New Hampshire college students from other states reside and attend classes in New Hampshire districts that saw high voter turnouts in 2016.
Kobach added that New Hampshire Democrat Maggie Hassan “likely” only won her senate race because it was “stolen through voter fraud.” He did not even pretend to have proof.
Assembled by a Trump executive order in early May, the commission has been tasked with finishing a report about “vulnerabilities and issues related to voter registration and voting.” Its founding followed dubious claims by the president alleging widespread voter fraud he said cost him the popular vote. Seemingly emasculated by having obtained fewer votes nationwide than Clinton, Trump has pushed an impossible theory that between 3 and 5 million illegal ballots were cast for his opponent.
“The president does believe that,” ex-White House press secretary Sean Spicer said four days after Trump’s inauguration. “He continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence people have presented to him.” Nearly seven months later, the White House has yet to produce a single document to support the president’s ridiculous tale.
The source of Trump’s claim is, by his own admission, the Houston-based organization True The Vote led by Greg Phillips, a former Texas Health and Human Services Commission official. Phillips has been cited by Breitbart—and only Breitbart—as an “election integrity researcher.” Phillips claimed days after Trump’s victory that millions of illegal immigrants had voted in the election. And while he ignored or flat out refused to produce any data supporting his claim, the idea of seemed to please the president.
Phillips’ claim was simultaneously picked up by Alex Jones’ website InfoWars and the personal blog of then-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos on Nov. 14. Trump joined the chorus less than two weeks later, claiming online that he would have “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” (A Nov. 13 tweet by Phillips declaring he had “verified more than three million votes cast by non-citizens” has since been deleted.)
It’s not the only erroneously claim he’s concocted: Phillips also tweeted that the only election hacking that took place in 2016 was done by President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security Department. Of course, Phillips didn’t have the receipts—but at least he’s consistent.
Kobach and Pence appointed five Democrats and seven Republicans to the commission this year, though Democrat Luis E. Borunda, Maryland’s deputy secretary of state, has since resigned. But it’s leadership is composed entirely of members of one party—the Republican party.
“Any truly bipartisan commission on these things has to have bipartisan leadership,” Danielle Lang, an attorney for the Campaign Legal Center, told Gizmodo. “There has to be some kind of bipartisan power on the commission—or it’s just a fig leaf. If you look at all of the former commissions that this would be similar to, they all had Democrat and Republican vice chairs. Instead, in this case, you have Kris Kobach and Mike Pence. That alone truly disqualifies it from being truly bipartisan in any meaningful way.”
In a statement to the commission on September 6th, one of its Democratic members, Probate Judge Alan King, offered this suggestion: “This Commission, and we as a people, should be expanding the rights of our citizens to vote, instead of arguably looking for ways to keep people from voting.”
The Heritage Foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment. We’ll update if they do.
Update, 5:54pm: Heritage Foundation spokesperson Sarah Mills sent Gizmodo the following statement, in which she confirms Hans von Spakovsky is the author of the letter:
“The Heritage Foundation is scrupulously nonpartisan. Hans von Spakovsky is a former member of the Federal Election Commission and has managed our Election Law Reform Initiative for many years. He brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to the discussion of voter fraud, and holds strong views on the topic. The views expressed in the email are his own.”
Update, 6:55pm: Prior to Gizmodo’s story, ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman spoke to Spakovsky in an interview she recorded. Contrary to Heritage’s statement, Spakovsky vehemently denied writing the letter. Huseman has uploaded her audio of Spakovsky’s denial:
Gizmodo has reached back out to Heritage’s spokesperson as well to see if they have any further comment.
Update, 2:55pm: Gizmodo received the following statement from Hans von Spakovsky Wednesday afternoon:
“Right after we completed a 7-hour Commission hearing yesterday, a reporter asked me about an email sent to Attorney General Sessions. Since I had been in the Commission hearing, I had not seen the email in question and did not know what the reporter was talking about.
“However, I answered the question I was asked accurately since I did not send an email to the attorney general. I have never had any discussions by email or otherwise with General Sessions about the election integrity commission. I did send a private email in February to private individuals who were not in the administration to express my personal concerns about the efficacy of the President’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity months before it was organized or any of its members were selected. I did not send it to General Sessions and was unaware that it had been forwarded to him.
“After my own participation as a member, I’m confident that all the members of the Commission are committed to uncovering the truth about election integrity and the other issues present in our election system and developing recommendations to safeguard and improve the voting process. The informative and comprehensive hearing we just held in New Hampshire organized and hosted by Bill Gardner (D), the long-time secretary of state, is evidence of the good work the Commission is already doing.”