President Trump’s controversial Election Integrity Commission won’t be probing Russian infiltration of state election systems after all.

At the commission’s inaugural meeting Wednesday in Washington – which the president briefly attended to push his evidence-free theory that the 2016 election was tainted by widespread voter fraud – Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap raised the subject, but agreed with his colleagues to instead rely on any information a Senate probe into Russian interference in the election might provide.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee will keep us apprised on what they find and we can work it into our report,” Dunlap told the Press Herald shortly after the meeting concluded. “We don’t have to do our separate investigations. I don’t think we are equipped to do that.”

The substantive part of the meeting focused on what actions the commission should take now that most states have rejected its request for voter registration information, with commissioners brainstorming on what data the federal government already had in its possession and how it might be used to explore voter fraud concerns.

Near the end of the meeting, Dunlap raised the possibility of the panel looking at Russia’s attempts to infiltrate state election infrastructure, as he has previously said he would. But the group resolved to rely on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation and not explore the issue itself.

Sen. Angus King of Maine sits on the committee and the classified briefings the independent has received have led him to vigorously argue for federal action to protect local election systems from infiltration and possible tampering by Russia or other actors. He’s asked his Senate colleagues to devote $160 million to replace voting machines that do not have paper ballots or backups with ones that do, and to fund post-election audits that would detect any discrepancies between automated vote counts and the paper evidence.

Asked ahead of the meeting if he endorsed this approach, Dunlap demurred, noting that Maine has paper ballots and, because of its relatively small jurisdictions, can hold recounts of disputed votes, avoiding the need for audits. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves looking at what all the other states use” for election machines, he said. He met with King on Tuesday morning “to get a better handle on what he is talking about,” but did not raise the paper trail and audit issues at the commission meeting.

While 70 percent of votes in the United States are made with paper ballots or backups, five states and jurisdictions in nine more do not, according to Verified Voting, a nonprofit in Carlsbad, California, that focuses on electoral security. In those jurisdictions, the group says, it is impossible to conduct a post-election audit to detect a hack or software error.

KEEPING AN OPEN MIND

Dunlap said it was important that he and his fellow commissioners not begin their work with preconceived conclusions. “We should keep an open mind on it and take it where the facts take us,” he said. “People everywhere (on the panel) were saying that we need to root out voter fraud wherever it appears, but that assumes there is fraud.”

Trump dropped in on the meeting – which was held in the Executive Office Building next to the White House – and questioned the motives of officials from Maine and the 43 other states that refused to comply with Kobach’s request for extensive personal information on all voters, including party affiliation and partial social security numbers.

“One has to wonder what they’re worried about,” Trump told the commissioners.

The president also suggested that there had been widespread fraud, citing unnamed people who “would come up to me (on the campaign trail) and express concerns about voter inconsistencies and voter irregularities.”

BIPARTISAN OR ‘WINDOW DRESSING’

Dunlap had been under pressure from some quarters not to join the commission that Trump created by executive order after claiming he had only lost the popular vote in the 2016 election because of ballots cast by millions of fraudulent voters, an assertion for which neither he nor anyone else has offered evidence to support. Dunlap is one of just four Democrats on the 12-person commission. One Republican commissioner – Maryland deputy secretary of state Luis Borunda – resigned without explanation on July 3.

“It’s a sham commission that serves as pretext to advocate for laws to make it harder for citizens to register to vote for no good reason,” said Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. Hasen, who specializes in election law, notes that previous presidential elections-related commissions have been co-chaired by Democratic and Republican senior statesmen, whereas this one is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, who will presumably be running for reelection in 2020.

“The participation of Secretary Dunlap and a handful of other Democrats gives Kobach and Pence an ability to claim that the commission is “bipartisan” even if the few Democrats don’t agree with the results. It provides a kind of fig leaf of legitimacy.”

The chair of the Maine Democratic Party, Phil Bartlett, has said the panel’s real purpose is to “lay the groundwork for voter suppression” called for Dunlap not to participate.

Kobach last week cited the participation of Dunlap and New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner to defend the commission from detractors to Breitbart, the conservative media outlet. “It’s a bipartisan commission,” Kobach said, “and if their theory is that voter fraud doesn’t exist – which, you know, their constant refrain that, ‘Why should this commission exist, voter fraud doesn’t exist’ – well then, we’ll make their case for them … we’ll come up with nothing. They should be happy we are meeting.”

NO EVIDENCE OF WIDESPREAD FRAUD

Nationally, numerous voter fraud investigations have concluded the problem is vanishingly small, with one study by Loyola Law School, Los Angeles professor Justin Levitt finding just 31 credible allegations of identity fraud in all primary, general, special and municipal elections between 2000 and 2014, despite over a billion votes being cast. A 2011 voter fraud probe in Maine by Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers found just one instance of fraud.

Dunlap continued to defend his participation – and the commission – ahead of the meeting. “If they find what they think they are going to find – which is not very much – but then try to use that to leverage major policy changes, I will be in a bear cage with a bullhorn in my hand and people will listen to me because I’m on the commission,” he told the Press Herald before boarding his flight to D.C. Tuesday.

“Let’s see where it takes us before we condemn it,” Dunlap added, echoing previous remarks on the panel. “I feel that way about anything I do in a governmental enterprise.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

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