Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission disbanded in disgrace earlier this month, but the fight to uncover what the panel actually did during its brief, secretive existence continues. On Monday, the Washington Post reported that the panel had purchased Texas election records that flagged all registered voters with Hispanic last names. Kris Kobach, who led the commission, claims he was unaware of that acquisition, which was made by a researcher who was recently arrested on child pornography charges.
The Texas data purchase was part of Kobach’s ill-conceived effort to gather comprehensive voter records from every state. At least 44 states and the District of Columbia refused to hand over all the requested data. (Even Kobach, who also serves as Kansas’ Secretary of State, could not legally provide all the information he requested from his own office.) Although the purchase of the Texas records did apparently go through, a judge ultimately blocked the state from giving Kobach the voter data.
The voter fraud panel’s interest in the Texas records came to light when Sen. Claire McCaskill requested information about the commission from the U.S. General Services Administration, which supported the group’s work. GSA turned over dozens of documents, including an invoice for Texas voter records with “Hispanic surname[s] flagged.”
Since 1983, Texas has attempted to identify Hispanic voters in order to comply with laws that require bilingual election notifications. The state uses the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of common surnames by race and Hispanic origin to determine which voters may require Spanish-language mailers. Anyone can purchase the data, and advocacy groups frequently do.
Why would the voter fraud commission need this data? Kobach told the Post the records “did not advance the commission’s inquiry in any way,” and that the request “just doesn’t make any sense.” He added that “this is the first I’ve heard” of the purchase,” calling the records “a complete surprise to me.”
According to Kobach, it was Ronald Williams II, a policy adviser on the commission, who bought the data. “Mr. Williams did not ask any member of the commission whether he should check that box or not,” Kobach asserted, “so it certainly wasn’t a committee decision.”
In October, Williams was arrested and charged with the possession and distribution of child pornography. (He has pleaded not guilty.) While the Post was not able to reach Williams for comment, the available evidence does bear out Kobach’s version of the events. Only Williams’ name appears on the invoice, and he indeed merely had to check a box to request the Hispanic voter data. The records also indicate Williams handled these kind of requests with virtually no oversight.
That doesn’t mean, though, that Kobach is being fully transparent. Before the commission was dissolved, one Democratic member, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, sued for access to documents that Republican commissioners allegedly concealed from him. A judge ruled in Dunlap’s favor, but Kobach, through the Department of Justice, still refuses to turn over the requested records. “Perhaps the only surprising aspect of the Department of Justice response,” Dunlap said in response, “is their rich blend of arrogance and contempt for the rule of law.”