Before Its First Meeting, Learn About The New Election Integrity Comission

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time for Words You'll Hear. That's where we take a look at an issue we think will be in the news by drilling down into some of the words associated with the story. Today, we're examining the phrase election integrity. We picked that because the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity is scheduled to hold its first public meeting this week. Now, this is the commission created by President Trump to look into what he said was rampant voter fraud during the election. Trump tweeted several times that he would have, quote, "won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the vice chair of the commission, has already been in the news because many state officials are refusing to comply with his request for voter roll data including addresses, date of birth, voting history and partial Social Security numbers. David Weigel, national political correspondent for The Washington Post has been following all this, so we asked him to tell us more. Dave, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID WEIGEL: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, first of all, what is the stated mission of this election integrity commission?

WEIGEL: It's just in the name. It has a very wide aperture. It's supposed to reassure Americans that our elections are not being stolen by illegal voting. And I think you set it up nicely. There's not a lot of proof of what the president said having happened in 2016 - in fact, no proof of that. The idea that millions of votes were cast illegally is fictional, but it's a fictional belief held by some of the powerful people who have been put on this commission.

MARTIN: And Kris Kobach being among them. Now, he's already been in the news, as we said, because he sent a request to all his fellow secretaries of state - you know, the keepers of this data - asking for specific information. You know, but I'm looking at the letter, and he says that he's requesting information that is publicly available under the laws of your state. Why is it that so many states so far are refusing to comply? In fact, they're fairly furious about this from their public comment.

WEIGEL: I think politically, it has been very good for states to say, we're not going to give you information in any way. And as a practical matter, there is a fear that this information will be collected in a database that would then be used to check off and challenge voters without much merit.

MARTIN: But one can understand why Democratic secretaries of state are opposed to this or people who have a history with Mr. Kobach who think that he's motivated by, say, racial animus, for example. But what about Republicans? I mean, why are they also opposed to this?

WEIGEL: Well, I think this tripped a wire on the privacy concerns that animate a lot of Republican politics. And Kobach's own state was not able to comply with his dictum because a lot of these states have passed - honestly, for other reasons, for kind of gun rights lobbying reasons - have passed strict privacy requirements that don't let you give this information away. And so it's been a way for them to make a statement that they're not giving their voters privacy away, even if they don't necessarily disagree with the goals of the commission.

It's just - when it hit this level of the government is asking for all this information to be swooped up in a database, I think years of public skepticism of seeing our information be stolen, be hacked, even if it's credit card information, that just rubbed people the wrong way. And it felt like Kobach under-rated what kind of backlash it would be, even among conservatives.

MARTIN: There's already been something that's pushed people's buttons to that end, something that the White House released last week that sort of underscored that irritation for people. What was that?

WEIGEL: They opened up this website to public comments. Almost all of the comments that they released were negative, I think only two were positive. But they did nothing to redact the names of who sent them. In many cases, the email addresses of the people who'd sent these. So the first time this group is asking for everyone's personal information, got its hands on it, it published it for everyone to see in much the way Julian Assange might publish it - no redactions, no attempts to protect the identity. They were exposing average people who had a problem with this commission to harassment, did nothing at all to tail it back.

MARTIN: Well, so what's likely to happen this week when the commission meets for the first time publicly?

WEIGEL: I think we'll hear the degree to which they believe this falsehood that there are millions of illegal votes cast in the election.

MARTIN: So election integrity in this context only means whether people who are ineligible to vote voted, as supposed to whether people who are eligible to vote were kept from voting?

WEIGEL: That's a very good question. No one in this commission seems to be very interested in the fact that if you are African-American, it's far more likely you're going to spend a long time in line than if you're white, no matter where you live. They're not really interested in - there are people who should be voting and don't now.

It comes down to decades of speculation on the right that there are machines - Democratic machines that are churning out illegal votes in every election to power things over. And that's where it comes from. It's hard to analyze it in a vacuum, in a neutral space, because the origin of this is a theory that Democrats must be stealing things, so we're deductively - we're going to figure out how they're stealing it, not we have a country where not everyone gets to vote with the same amount of ease, so let's fix that.

MARTIN: That's Washington Post national political correspondent David Weigel. David was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Dave, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WEIGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.