A presidential commission born of a presidential tweet held its first meeting on Wednesday to look into problems with voting that may undermine the public's confidence in elections.
But the tweet in question, where President Trump alleged without evidence that millions of people voted illegally last November, hung over the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity's first meeting after Trump made a surprise appearance.
"Every time voter fraud occurs, it cancels out the vote of a lawful citizen, and undermines democracy. Can't let that happen. Any form of illegal or fraudulent voting, whether by non-citizens or the deceased, and any form of voter suppression or intimidation must be stopped," said Trump.
The commission has been controversial from its inception. When it was set up in May, it was described as "bipartisan." But the two leaders — Vice President Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — are both Republicans. Kobach and several other members are among the nation's most vocal advocates of strict voter ID laws and other measures to ferret out and fight voter fraud.
In an interview with MSNBC Wednesday, Kobach echoed Trump's unproven claim about illegal votes, responding to a question about whether he believed Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote by saying, "We will probably never know the answer to that question. Because even if you could prove that a certain number of votes were cast by ineligible voters, for example, you wouldn't know how they voted."
The panel has drawn multiple lawsuits, including one for its first action, when it asked all 50 states to send in detailed voter registration records. Some states refused to comply and many others said they would comply reluctantly and provide limited data.
Trump was quick to cast doubt on the states that haven't fully cooperated with the panel.
"One has to wonder what they're worried about," Trump said. "There's something, there always is."
State voter rolls are filled with duplicate, erroneous and outdated registrations, argued commission member Hans von Spakovsky, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Von Spakovsky handed out printouts of a database he maintains of voter fraud cases showing nearly 1,100 cases and almost a thousand convictions.
But those numbers — which pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of registered voters — are one reason Trump's claims have been widely criticized.
Many voting rights advocates and election officials worry the commission will blow the issue out of proportion, at the expense of issues such as increasing voter turnout or preventing future cyberattacks after Russian-linked hackers probed election systems in at least 21 states.
"I listened very closely to the remarks of the president. But no one who's spoken, including the president, has questioned the legitimacy of the outcome of the 2016 election. I think that's a great place to start from,' said Matthew Dunlap, Maine's secretary of state and one of five Democrats on the panel. Dunlap said he hopes the commission will look at best practices in election management in order to instill more public confidence.
Other members pointed to America's aging voting infrastructure.
"These voting machines are outdated There's no money there. Counties don't have money. States don't have money. We need money," said Alabama probate judge Alan King, another Democrat. King said in his 16 years working on local elections he's seen no evidence of fraud.
Vice President Pence said he wanted more public input even though the group's first meeting was closed to public and only available as online video stream.
Those with strong opinions showed up instead at a rally outside the White House. Many of the 100 or so protesters said they worried that the commission will be used to justify more voting restrictions like strict ID laws.
"This not about voter fraud. This is literally about stripping the right to vote from millions of Americans," said Joya Taft-Dick of Washington, DC.
That's something panel members insisted was not their goal, that they're interested instead in making sure that eligible voters are confident elections are fair.