TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Voting rights advocates and some state election officials cheered President Donald Trump's announcement that he was disbanding his election fraud commission, but their celebration could be short-lived.
Trump spiked the commission late Wednesday amid infighting and refusals by numerous states to cooperate, but at the same time transferred its mission to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That concerns some election officials and experts who had been critical of the commission.
DHS could have broad legal authority to conduct an investigation into Trump's unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud. That's because of a declaration at the end of President Barack Obama's administration that election infrastructure is vital to national security.
"I am deeply concerned that the work is being shifted over to DHS where it can be done behind closed doors and without the sunshine offered from open public scrutiny," Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat, said in a statement Thursday to The Associated Press.
He said the move "only fuels fears of a federal takeover" of elections, which are overseen by the states and carried out by thousands of local jurisdictions. The decentralized nature of the country's elections has been seen as a buffer against attempts at widespread manipulation.
The commission's vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, said the work done by DHS is likely to be less public.
Trump convened the commission in May to investigate the 2016 presidential election after repeatedly making unsubstantiated claims that between 3 million and 5 million illegally cast ballots had cost him the popular vote. Trump won the Electoral College.
Trump said in tweets early Thursday that the states, mostly Democratic leaning, "fought hard that the Commission not see their records or methods because they know that many people are voting illegally."
An AP tally showed 15 states and the District of Columbia denied the commission's request for detailed voter data, some of which are Republican-leaning. Those include North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming. The commission initially requested partial Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, voting history and other information before criticism forced it to scale back its request.
States' reasons for denying the request varied. They included concerns that the commission's ultimate goal was voter suppression primarily targeting the poor and minorities, voter privacy and issues of states' rights.
It wasn't immediately clear what direction the Department of Homeland Security's work on election fraud would take.
"At the President's direction, the Department continues to work in support of state governments who are responsible for administering elections, with efforts focused on securing elections against those who seek to undermine the election system or its integrity," DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton said in an email to the AP.
Kobach and other Republicans have pushed for state laws requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls or to provide papers documenting U.S. citizenship to register.
The Kansas secretary of state's prominent role on the commission fueled opposition to it. Kansas has some of the nation's toughest voter ID laws, and Kobach is enmeshed in multiple lawsuits. Before Trump took office, Kobach took a proposal into a meeting with the president-elect laying out ideas for changing federal laws to make it easier for states to impose such requirements.
On Thursday, Kobach told the AP that the Department of Homeland Security could move forward by checking its list of non-citizens living in the U.S. against voter registration data.
"The work will continue, but now it will continue in a forum where they won't have a seat at the table, and so really all they've done is taken themselves away from the table," he said of his critics. "It's hugely ironic."
Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, called the White House's statement that DHS will continue investigating election fraud "ominous."
"We must remain vigilant to ensure that every American citizen's right to vote is protected," he said.
While there have been isolated cases of people voting illegally and many voter rolls contain outdated data, there is no evidence voter fraud is anywhere as widespread a problem in the U.S. as Trump has suggested. Past studies have found voter fraud to be exceptionally rare.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said in a statement that she hopes the Department of Homeland Security focuses on non-partisan election security issues "like foreign interference and cybersecurity."
Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a critic of the commission, questioned whether the declaration that election infrastructure is vital to national security gives DHS authority for a broad investigation of domestic voting issues. She also said the department is going to face similar obstacles in seeking information from the states.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin — who refused to hand over voter information to the commission — said DHS would have to show a legitimate reason for wanting the state's voter data. If it doesn't, the Democrat said he would fight any request in court.
"This just points out the folly of those who gave (the commission) records, because why would you want Homeland Security to have personal information on voters?" Galvin said. "These aren't suspects, they're citizens."
Associated Press writers Susan Haigh in Hartford, Connecticut; Steve LeBlanc in Boston; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont, contributed to this report.