A fact-finding hearing by President Trump's commission looking into voter fraud exposed self-inflicted rifts among its members during the panel's second meeting Tuesday in Manchester, N.H.
Days earlier, the panel's Republican co-chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, wrote a column in Breitbart News claiming that there was proof of enough voter fraud in New Hampshire last November to possibly have influenced the outcome of a Senate race.
That did not sit well with another commission member, New Hampshire's longtime secretary of state, Democrat Bill Gardner, who happened to be the host of Tuesday's commission meeting.
Gardner said Kobach's column caused a "problem" by questioning whether last year's election was "real and valid."
"It is real and valid," he said, to the applause of some in the audience.
But Gardner said he could see why there might be confusion. His state has complicated residency rules about who can and can't vote, which might lead some people to conclude that thousands of voters who use out-of-state driver's licenses as ID had committed voter fraud.
Kobach acknowledged that the issue was "complicated" and said more research needed to be done.
The incident illustrated one of the main problems the panel faces as it goes forward with its stated mission of finding ways to instill more public confidence in U.S. elections: The voting process is complicated and data are difficult to come by, a point several witnesses emphasized on Tuesday.
Another problem for the commission's work is that it was created in response to President Trump's unproved claim that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally in November.
Democrats and many voting rights activists — about 50 of whom protested outside the meeting — have called the commission a "sham." They worry that the 12-member panel is stacked with members who believe that voter fraud is extensive and will use its conclusions to push for more restrictive voter laws.
Kobach and the commission's chairman, Vice President Pence, have denied this, saying they have no preconceived ideas and will follow the facts where they lead.
But the commission heard from several witnesses Tuesday that it's not always easy to find those facts, that voter data are limited and often incomplete, and that it's difficult to know what accounts for the drop in participation in U.S. elections since the 1960s.
Some commission members have suggested people don't vote because they think the system is "rigged," but University of New Hampshire political scientist Andrew Smith said voter surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau have reached a different conclusion.
"The major reason that they see that people don't vote ... is that they just didn't bother, they weren't interested, they forgot," Smith said. "Basically, issues of convenience and noninterest were the major reasons."
Still, several members of the commission — including Kobach — have argued that voter fraud is a serious problem that undermines public confidence. The panel heard from several witnesses who have conducted studies that they say show numerous cases of people voting more than once, or noncitizens casting ballots illegally.
"There's a high likelihood of voter fraud, based on what we've done so far with our analysis. There's likely a lot more to be found," said Ken Block, president of Simpatico Software Systems. His company studied voter data in 21 states and concluded "with high confidence" that there were more than 8,000 cases of people voting twice.
However, Block's methodology has been challenged by numerous voting experts. One commission member, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, questioned Block's findings, saying he has found that most problems can be explained by human error.
"People tend to be law-abiding," he said. "What we've discovered, as we've done some of these exact same inquiries that you do, is that people check off the wrong box, they make a mistake, the clerk gets confused."
Dunlap, as well as other commissioners, also questioned the viability of a proposal by another witness that voters undergo the same kind of background check now applied to gun buyers. John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, said the National Instant Criminal Background Check System could be used to identify those who are ineligible to vote, such as felons and noncitizens.
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