ATLANTA (AP) — President Donald Trump hasn’t backed away from his unsubstantiated claim that millions of illegally cast ballots cost him the popular vote in 2016, but his efforts to investigate it appear to have stalled.
He transferred the work of the commission investigating his claim to the Department of Homeland Security. This week, the department’s top official made it clear that, when it comes to elections, her focus is on safeguarding state and local voting systems from cyberattacks and other manipulation.
While the U.S. Department of Justice has broad authority to investigate voter fraud claims, White House officials said previously that Homeland Security was the best agency to take over the work of the now-disbanded Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. A Justice Department official declined comment this week on whether the agency was conducting any reviews related to voter fraud, but confirmed that no voter data collected by the commission, nor analysis of the data, was given to the agency before the commission was disbanded.
The end of the commission is welcome news to voting rights advocates concerned that its ultimate goal was to promote voter-suppression efforts. They and numerous state election officials were alarmed when the commission issued a broad request to states last spring for detailed information on their voters, including partial Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses and voting history.
“The commission was an unprecedented attempt to make it harder for ordinary Americans to vote and have their voices heard,” said Kristen Clarke, head of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights, which sued alleging the commission violated laws requiring transparency. “In the end, it was a monumental failure on the part of this administration and makes clear that this is an administration that does not place a premium on the right to vote.”
An Associated Press tally showed that 15 states and the District of Columbia refused to turn over the voter data, many citing privacy concerns, and a handful of others had yet to decide by the time Trump ended the commission. Some of the states that pushed back against the commission’s request for voter data were Republican-leaning, including North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming.
The White House announcement dissolving the commission said Trump had “asked the Department of Homeland Security to review its initial findings and determine next courses of action.” But the director of White House Information Technology, Charles C. Herndon, said in recently filed court documents that the commission did not create any preliminary findings before it was disbanded. He also stated that none of the voter data collected by the commission will be transferred to or accessed by Homeland Security or any other federal agency, with the possible exception of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Herndon said the White House intended to destroy the voter data. This past week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified that her agency views cybersecurity as its top election-related priority and is focused on working with state and local officials to secure their election systems from cyber threats and hackers. She called voter fraud a “large topic” that covers various federal agencies.
“The part that DHS plays, we are looking at the integrity of the cyber systems,” Nielsen told U.S. senators at a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “We will continue to work with states and localities on that.”
Last year, Homeland Security designated election systems as “critical infrastructure,” on par with the electrical grid and water supply, and a 27-member council was formed with representatives from federal, state and local governments. A key priority has been establishing a process for sharing intelligence.
Nielsen did note that Homeland Security was available to assist states that have concerns about non-citizens voting in federal elections. When asked whether the department intends to investigate claims of voter fraud, spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton said in an email that it is working with a “limited number” of states and counties that wish to verify the citizenship status of voters through a program managed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency also is evaluating how it might provide additional assistance to states, Houlton said.
While there have been isolated cases of voter fraud in the U.S., there is no evidence of it being a widespread problem. The former vice chairman of the Trump commission — Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — said previously that he planned to advise Homeland Security on the commission’s work. This past week, he said he has not had any communication with the department, but remains in contact with the White House.
“When the president disbanded the commission, he did so with the expectation that DHS will take over the investigation,” Kobach said in an interview. It’s not clear what, if anything, the Trump administration might do now to further investigate the president’s voter fraud claims.