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Maine Secretary Of State Says Voting Rights Could Be In Danger, Even After Fraud Commission’s Demise

President Donald Trump’s decision to dissolve his controversial voter fraud commission has made Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap something of a hero among progressives and voting rights advocates.

It was Dunlap who successfully sued the commission, forcing it to turnover its working papers — one of several lawsuits the administration says influenced its decision to disband the fraud commission.

But while some welcome the commission’s demise, Dunlap says Mainers should be concerned that the Trump administration has shifted its fraud investigation to the Department of Homeland Security.

Dunlap says the president’s decision, and his explanation for it, confirm his suspicions about the original intent of the voter fraud commission on which he served.

“It kind of tells me what their goals were all along, which was to get a national voter ID law and other restrictive voter laws and to do it under the auspices of either national rulemaking or an executive order,” he says.

Dunlap is referring to Trump’s tweet explaining his decision to disband the fraud commission, in which the president suggested the country needs a voter ID law.

Voter ID is controversial. The Maine Legislature has repeatedly rejected it amid concerns that it will disenfranchise voters, particularly minorities, the elderly and college students.

Gov. Paul LePage and some Republicans disagree.

That’s why the president’s voter fraud commission was viewed by critics as an attempt to legitimize and nationalize such restrictions. And it’s also why Dunlap is now being heralded by voting rights activists for playing a part in disbanding the commission.

But Dunlap says the fight over voting rights is far from over.

“What the implication is by taking this to Homeland Security is they want to do this without interference,” he says. “They don’t want public input. They don’t want protests from state legislatures or secretaries of state or individual voters. They want to get this thing implemented, while they can.”

And Dunlap says shifting the voter fraud investigation to DHS could be just the place to do it.

Earlier this year DHS designated election systems as critical infrastructure, putting them in the same category as the power grid, the defense and financial systems. The move was in response to Russian attempts to hack election systems in 2016, but it was also criticized by some state election officials as a regulatory overreach into state election systems.

Dunlap says the designation could give DHS access to high-level voter information that the fraud commission struggled to obtain from states like Maine. And he also notes that DHS also oversees the national Real ID law, which created identification standards for domestic air travel and accessing federal facilities.

DHS can make sweeping changes to compliance standards for Real ID.

“And they can layer on all kinds of conditions for compliance around elections,” Dunlap says. “And then they can get access to all that voter information now held by the states under the critical infrastructure designation. So, all this could happen without any legislation. Obviously people are now aware of this.”

Dunlap says public awareness is what helped deep-six the election fraud commission. And if the Trump administration attempts to use the federal bureaucracy to push voting restrictions, Dunlap says his office will sound the alarm.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.