Justice Department Has Communicated With Controversial Election Commission, Sessions Confirms

The revelation fuels concerns over voter suppression efforts and could raise legal questions.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 18, 2017. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed Wednesday that there have been communications between the Justice Department and President Donald Trump’s controversial election fraud commission, amplifying concerns that the two bodies may be working together to make it harder for Americans to vote.

The actions and records of the election commission so far have confirmed fears among voting rights advocates that the commissions’ leaders are determined to compile evidence of voter fraud—of which there have been few documented cases—with the likely goal of imposing tighter restrictions on registering and voting. The commission’s communications, revealed earlier this month as part of a lawsuit, have raised concerns that it is not acting alone in its work. Voting rights advocates became concerned that the Justice Department and the commission were coordinating in June, when on the same day that the commission requested data from states on every registered voter, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division asked states to turn over information on how they maintain their voting rolls.

Communication between the Justice Department and the commission may also raise legal questions if the department is sharing data with the commission that is protected by privacy laws. The Justice Department is also restricted by a policy written by the White House counsel in January that prevents it from sharing certain information about ongoing investigations and prosecutions with the White House.

Sessions appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a Justice Department oversight hearing on Wednesday. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked him whether anyone working for him was coordinating with the commission. Sessions acknowledged communications but denied coordination. “I don’t know that coordinating is correct,” he responded. “We’ve been asked for assistance on several issues.”

Sessions also broadly endorsed the mission of the commission, stating, “I think it’s quite appropriate for the president to have a commission to review possible irregularities in elections.”

Earlier this month, Justice Department attorneys, representing the commission, released an index of communications involving commission members and staff as part of a federal lawsuit over the commission’s compliance with federal public records laws. The index revealed communications between commissioners and Department of Justice (DOJ) officials. On Tuesday, Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee had requested that the Justice Department turn over any communications with the commission. Their letter highlighted relevant exchanges in the index:

  • May 15, 2017:  “email exchange re: Chicago board of election” (DOJ official to Commissioner Christy McCormick) (#541)
  • June 15, 2017:  “email about setting up a time to speak”  (Andrew Kossack, the Commission’s designated federal officer, to DOJ official) (#687)
  • July 5-6, 2017:  “email exchange discussing voting issue with attachment” (DOJ Official to McCormick) (#544)
  • Aug. 1-2, 2017:  “email chain and planner setting a time for a call” (Kossack to Department of Homeland Security Official and Staff, DOJ) (#738 & 741)
  • Aug. 22, 2017:  “email re: collecting data from non-state entities” (Kossack to DOJ) (#748)
  • Sept. 5, 2017:  “email forwarding link to news article” (DOJ official to McCormick) (#564)
  • Sept. 6, 11, 2017:  “emails exchange discussing Chicago voting issue” (Third party to McCormick, DOJ official) (#565)
  • Sept. 15, 2017: “email exchange re: sending materials for litigation index” (Kossack to DOJ, King) (#343)
  • Undated:  Litigation documents and emails with DOJ (#778)

In their letter, committee Democrats expressed concern over potential coordination between the commission’s conservative members and the Civil Rights Division. “If these communications concern ongoing or contemplated cases or investigations in the Civil Rights Division, they could violate the Administration’s policy limiting contacts between the White House and the Department,” the letter stated. 

Democrats on the committee had already requested communications that members believe would include those listed on the index, and they renewed that request in their letter. The “index shows the Department has records of these communications in its possession and should be able to produce them to us without further delay,” they wrote. 

Voting rights advocates also want to know more about the communications between the commission and the Justice Department. Wendy Weiser, a voting rights expert at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, tweeted during the hearing:

As Mother Jones previously reported, the index cast doubt on the legality of the commission’s activities, including coordination with the Department of Homeland Security and third parties outside of government that the commission may hire to analyze the voter information it receives.