WASHINGTON — Two members of a presidential commission charged with investigating alleged voter fraud want the panel to focus on what could be the biggest fraudulent scheme of all: attempted Russian hacking of numerous state election systems.
The call, by the secretaries of state in New Hampshire and Maine, presents a potential change in direction for a special commission that has widely been seen as a political smoke screen to justify the president’s unfounded claims about widespread fraud by individual voters in such places as New Hampshire and California.
Experts have dismissed Trump’s claims of ineligible voters faking their way into ballot booths as lacking evidence and overblown, the stuff of conspiracy websites. A focus on Russian hacking, however, would put additional attention on the topic of Vladimir Putin’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, an issue that Trump’s White House has vigorously sought to downplay.
“There’s stuff coming out now that states were hacked in this election,” said New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a member of the commission, when asked what the scope of the group’s work should be. He said he’d be surprised if New Hampshire was targeted, given its use of paper ballots.
Still, he said, as a member of Trump’s voter-fraud commission he wants to understand whether other states’ computerized election systemswere victimized and remain at risk.
“If you are looking at the integrity of the election, you have to look at things that might compromise that integrity. That includes things that might happen electronically,” said Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who is also on the commission, in a separate interview.
Dunlap, who like Gardner is a Democrat, said he hopes US intelligence agencies will share information about attempts by Russians to penetrate voting systems.
“If they have any evidence that there has been real damage done to our election system, they really need to communicate that to the election officials, not keep it under wraps,” he added.
Kris Kobach, a Republican who is the Kansas secretary of state and vice chairman of the commission, said the panel would examine the vulnerabilities that Russians exposed if the group wanted to go in that direction.
“In the initial descriptions of the commission, election security and the integrity of equipment and voter databases was not specifically described,” Kobach said. “But if it’s something the commission wants to discuss, we can.”
A spokesman for Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the commission, referred questions to Kobach. Kobach said that he’s in regular contact with Pence and his staff about the group’s work.
Documents from the National Security Agency that were published June 5 by the news outlet The Intercept show that American spies believe Russian intelligence agents tried to hack a US company that maintains and verifies voter rolls in seven states. Russia also attempted to trick more than 100 local election officials into revealing their computer login information, which would give the Russians control of their computers, according to the leaked NSA documents.
A 25-year-old NSA contractor has been charged with leaking secret information to the media, but the NSA has not publicly discussed its conclusions about hacking or whether it believes state election systems were penetrated. The agency referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security.
Separately, Bloomberg News reported on June 13 that Russian hackers attempted to gain access to election information in 39 states. The Department of Homeland Security reported Wednesday that election systems in 21 states were targeted.
On Wednesday, Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, criticized Homeland Security for failing to disclose which states were targeted in Russian cyberattacks. Only Illinois and Arizona are publicly known to have been struck.
“A small number of networks were successfully compromised,’’ according to prepared testimony from DHS, which did not name individual states.
Jeanette Manfra, Homeland Security’s undersecretary of cybersecurity, said at the hearing that she wanted to “protect the confidentiality” of states or counties that were victims.
Despite skepticism about some of Trump’s claims of voter fraud, Gardner and Dunlap agreed to be part of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which the president launched by executive order May 11. The group is charged with examining “vulnerabilities in voting systems” that “could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting” as part of its mission.
The panel was widely denounced by critics who say voter fraud is not a widespread phenomenon in US elections.
Seventeen US intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, believe that Russia orchestrated cyberattacks intended to tilt the election toward Trump. Much of their focus has been on hacks of the Democratic National Committee and of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. These produced a stream of leaked e-mails that fed a constant grind of negative news about Clinton’s campaign. The extent of hacking efforts aimed at individual state election systems, and whether any were successful, remains unclear.
Asked if Trump believes Russia interfered in 2016, White House press secretary Sean Spicer dodged the question. “I have not sat down and talked to him about that specific thing,” Spicer said Tuesday.
There are four congressional committees and one FBI investigation examining ways that Russia might have tried to influence the election. The president’s election fraud commission is supposed to “avoid duplicating the efforts of existing government entities,” according to the executive order that created it, but it’s unclear if any existing probes will look at the vulnerabilities of state voting systems.
The commission is off to a slow start: No meetings have been scheduled yet. So far ten commissioners have been named, including three Wednesday evening. Kobach said that it has been taking more time than anticipated to run background checks on commissioners.
He anticipates the group’s first meeting will be in late July or early August in Washington.
Two full-time staff members are working for the panel, gathering data from various agencies that Kobach believes the commissioners will need. One person was hired specifically to work on the project; the other was moved from another federal agency, he said.
Kobach has drawn the ire of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union for pushing what they see as a highly restrictive law that would require voters to show a birth certificate, passport, or naturalization papers before being able to register.
The panel was created after Trump asserted there was widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election.
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump said via Twitter in late November.
Clinton, the Democratic nominee, garnered nearly three million more votes than Trump, in part due to overwhelming margins in California and New York.
The president also claimed in early February that droves of Massachusetts citizens boarded buses bound for New Hampshire and voted illegally in the Granite State, contributing to his narrow loss there. There has been no evidence that happened.
But Kobach has tried to distance the commission from Trump’s accusations.
“The commission is not set up to disprove or to prove President Trump’s claim, nor is it only looking at the 2016 election,” Kobach said in an interview with CNN in May. “We’re looking at all forms of election irregularities — voter fraud, voter registration fraud, voter intimidation, suppression, and looking at the vulnerabilities of the various elections we have in each of the 50 states.”
Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state, has staunchly denied there was massive voter fraud in New Hampshire during the election. Still, he said he had “no reservations” about joining a panel created in part to find proof of such fraud.
“If you read the executive order, it talks about election process and voter registration,” Gardner said. “I certainly have strong opinions about why New Hampshire has been first, second, or third in the country on voter turnout. The rest of the country has been behind us.”
Dunlap said that people have voiced skepticism to him about the commission but that he believes it’s better to participate, at least initially.
“It’s a question I get a lot: Your reputation could be being used to legitimize something a lot of people think is a sham,” Dunlap said. “But it puts a bit of a bullhorn in my hand.”
Dunlap added: “What’s a bigger story? I refuse to join, or we get going and I resign because it’s a big farce? I’m not going to stand for any foolishness.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.