Excerpted from “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy,” by David Daley. Published by Liveright, a division of WW Norton and Co. Copyright 2020. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Kris Kobach wears the aw-shucks smile of the star quarterback on prom night, naturally winning the approval of his date’s demanding father, the doors of power and privilege swinging wide. Just as he knew they would. Kobach’s enthusiastic beam says, “I belong here, never doubted it.”
It was November 20, 2016, just 12 days after Donald Trump’s surprise victory, and the Kansas secretary of state stood confidently alongside the president-elect at his exclusive New Jersey golf club, one of many gilded transition sanctums. Kobach had been exchanging emails with Gene Hamilton, the Trump transition official overseeing the administration’s immigration policy, plans for a Muslim travel ban and appointments to Homeland Security and Justice. In them, Kobach, the architect of the nation’s strictest voter-ID and anti-immigration measures, assured Hamilton that he had already begun writing amendments to the National Voter Registration Act that would “make clear that proof of citizenship requirements are permitted.” That day, he carried a brown leather portfolio case with one paper-clipped document visible. Cameras captured its title: “Kobach Strategic Plan for First 365 Days.”
As the president makes new, unfounded claims about voter fraud and mail-in voting, it’s worth looking back on the colossal train wreck of his administration’s first efforts to prove voter fraud, a Kobach-led commission forced to close down without confirming a single example. It began that afternoon when Kobach took his place on the portico next to Trump, with the assembled international media looking on, Kobach’s view all flashbulbs, manicured lawns, a spectacular tiered fountain. The next president held his left arm on Kobach’s back, and with his right he pointed at him with a gesture that said, “Not me, this is the real man, this guy right here.”
Sure, the media, most academics, and election-law experts had mocked and dismissed Kobach’s claims about voter fraud, but Kobach pressed eternally forward, deaf to fact-checkers, as one can be when every media profile notes your degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. At Bedminster, his ideas had gained currency at the center of power. Aides opened the giant white doors for the secretary of state and the president-elect. Kobach beheld the staircase where Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner took their wedding photos, and entered a clubhouse where the initiation fee alone ran upward of $300,000. Anything must have seemed possible.
Trump emerged from his meetings with Kobach convinced that he would have won the national popular vote if it wasn’t for voter fraud, and when the media asked how he explained the missing 2.8 million votes, the White House pointed to Kobach for the proof. Then Trump soon appointed Kobach, along with Vice President Mike Pence, as co-chairs of a presidential commission to investigate election integrity. Kobach’s plan was easy to discern: The commission was to be the front through which a cabal of shadowy Republican activists and oft-debunked academics, backed by misleading studies, laundered their phony voting-fraud theories into a justification for real-world suppression tactics such as national voter ID and massive coast-to-coast electoral-roll purges.
How could Kobach know, as he felt the hand of the next president of the United States on the small of his back, that over several weeks in 2018 a seemingly easy-to-dismiss pal from Maine would help pull all of it down? Before the nation, Kobach’s entire case for fraud and its facade of election protection would be shredded, decisively, and even seen as fraudulent itself, like some exclusive, glittery Trump Vineyards label pasted over a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.
Far, far from Trump National sits the secretary of state’s suite in Augusta, Maine, tucked upstairs in a brick building that feels nothing like a clubhouse and more like a long-retired elementary school. Enter Matt Dunlap’s office and you’re greeted not with a colossal chandelier or fancy marble floors, but a giant black bear rug.
The rug makes for a rather jarring sight. As Maine’s secretary of state, Dunlap is responsible for administering elections, the state archives, and the department of motor vehicles. His office runs student mock elections and the Eighth Grade Citizenship Awards. You’d expect a rug displaying the state seal, perhaps walls covered in license plates — especially since Dunlap, balding and bespectacled, looks like a secretary of state. The actor who played Kevin on The Office could portray him in the movie. But it was Dunlap who brought this bear down himself through superior patience — waiting weeks, months, ramrod-straight and silent in a tree stand just 10 minutes from his home until the ideal moment to strike presented itself.
In the end, the beast never saw Dunlap coming. Neither would Kobach, having underestimated the focus and determination behind those shirt sleeves and 1950s frames. Kobach’s impressive-sounding Presidential Commission on Election Integrity failed spectacularly, felled by arrogance, cartoonish incompetence, even a shadowy right-wing researcher arrested for child pornography. The commission’s disingenuous creation and private White House emails were laid bare thanks to the courage of Dunlap, the small-state hunter they underestimated.
“It was a dishonest effort from the very beginning. It was never really meant to uncover anything,” Dunlap tells me, more mournful than outraged. “It was meant to backfill an unprovable thesis that there’s voter fraud — then to issue a fake report justifying laws or executive orders that change the fundamental nature of how we run elections. I think that might have been the real danger that we averted.”
Though many critics recognized the commission as a show trial, steered by Kobach — an Inspector Clouseau who gazes into his mirror and sees Sherlock Holmes — toward confirmation of his own false theories, Dunlap nevertheless wanted to serve. Kobach understood that the commission needed to be bipartisan, on the surface, at least. Dunlap accepted his appointment knowing that he’d be criticized for lending legitimacy to a pseudoscientific charade. Nevertheless, he thought a committee that lacked perspectives like his own might be more dangerous if left unchecked. He also thought Maine had a story to tell about clean elections run entirely without voter ID; this appointment might give him the opportunity to share it before the national media. Then, if Kobach went too far, Dunlap thought he might be a valuable counterweight. Dunlap never expected to star in Kobach’s show, but he had no idea just how passive and “supporting” his role was intended to be.
The first clue came in June 2017, when Kobach, in the name of the commission, demanded voluminous voter data from all 50 state-election officials, including Social Security numbers, party registration, and voting history. This came as a surprise to Dunlap and other commissioners, who’d reminded Kobach on a conference call just the day before how zealously secretaries of state protected that data. Even officials from Trump and Kobach’s own party saw the dangers in handing over such personal information. “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico,” replied Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, to Kobach’s request.
Then, in September 2017, just before the commission met in New Hampshire, Kobach published an opinion piece on Breitbart News Network, a conservative-media organ once run by Steve Bannon, suggesting that it was election fraud that cost Trump the state’s electoral votes and the seat of GOP senator Kelly Ayotte. Kobach’s reasoning in his essay was creative: More than 6,500 people had voted on Election Day 2016 with an out-of-state driver’s license and only 1,014 of them had obtained a New Hampshire license since, cinching in his mind that the remaining 5,486 votes were fraudulent Democratic ballots that tilted the results. “I issue drivers’ licenses!” Dunlap says. “Making an equation between voting and not updating a driver’s license is like saying, ‘If you have cash in your wallet, it’s proof that you’ve robbed a bank.’”
In October 2017, a shockwave rattled the Election Integrity commission, when a staff researcher was arrested for possessing child pornography on his phone. Dunlap and others on the commission were unaware that the commission even had a researcher. Dunlap learned about the staffer, and the arrest, when The Washington Post connected the bust to the commission, and his inbox erupted with media inquiries. Then he learned about a potential late-fall commission meeting only after a conservative voting group boasted that it had been invited to give testimony.
Was there a forthcoming meeting? What was the deal with this researcher? Dunlap’s emails to Kobach were ignored. Voicemail boxes at the White House were too full to accept new messages. Dunlap had had enough. He wrote a formal letter to the commission. “I just want to know what’s going on,” he tells me, saying that he still saw himself as a team player. “I want to know who we’re talking to. I want to know what we’re talking about. I want to know what our reference materials are. And most of all, I’d like to get a handle on our schedule.”
Instead, his letter got no reaction from either Kobach or the vice president’s office. “Silence,” he says. “If they had handed me a bunch of binders, I probably would have been satisfied. But they didn’t do that.” Ten days later, he got an email from Pence’s office. They were reviewing his request with legal counsel. For the first time, but not for the last, Dunlap wondered if he was even actually on the commission.
His letter, however, did catch someone’s attention in the “deep state.” One fall afternoon, Dunlap returned from a meeting in Bangor and decided to take the afternoon off to “button up my yard.” His cell phone buzzed: a Facebook message from a well-connected friend in Washington. The tone was urgent: Call me, but on my cell. What followed played out like a scene from All the President’s Men, akin to Bob Woodward rearranging plants on his balcony to signal a meeting with his secret super-source Deep Throat. Dunlap’s friend said that he carried a message from the chief of staff of a United States senator who wished not to be named. “He said, ‘Matt, look, people are talking about you down here.’” They’d noticed the letter and wanted to help. Better even than Dunlap, they knew the kind of resources he’d need. “You’re not going to be able to take on the Department of Justice and the White House alone.’” Dunlap, chilled, didn’t realize that was what he’d done. “You need attorneys. I’m going to give you a name and number. You ought to give them a call.”
Terrified, Dunlap hung up. He had merely asked when his commission met next. He didn’t want to go to war with Washington or re-enact Three Days of the Condor. Still, unsure of what he was doing or whom he might be calling, Dunlap climbed into his car for privacy and left a message at the number he’d been given. “My name is Matt Dunlap. I’m the secretary of state for the state of Maine, and I was given your name by a third party who wishes to remain anonymous. I think I might be in some kind of trouble.” He’d reached a new nonprofit, American Oversight, a world-class assemblage of legal talent dedicated to high-impact litigation and investigation. “It’s like having a company softball team and all of a sudden Dustin Pedroia shows up,” he cracks, referring to the Boston Red Sox all-star. The group knew more about the commission’s workings than Dunlap — and, fatefully, Kobach. Dunlap would learn that the commission was subject to something called the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires that any such presidential commission embrace diverse viewpoints and a broad spectrum of political views, maintain open public records, and be conducted with complete transparency. American Oversight wanted to bring a lawsuit immediately. Slow down, said Dunlap, spooked and unsure whom he could trust. “I’m from Maine,” he said, where there’s a certain circumspect way of doing things. “I’m glad you like the apple sauce, but I really need the Mason jars back.”
Folksy Vacationland wisdom aside, there was no time to lose. Dunlap didn’t want to go to war, but he was determined to know what was going on behind the scenes. In mid-November, mere weeks after that chilling call, Dunlap and American Oversight led suit. They alleged that the commission’s “superficial bipartisanship has been a facade” and that Dunlap and other Democratic commissioners were being “excluded from the commission’s work.” The panel’s operations have “not been open and transparent, not even to the commissioners themselves,” they charged.
Dunlap still hoped the suit might wake people up in the vice president’s office and put things back on track. Perhaps Pence aide Andrew Kossack would return his phone calls and even apologize. Dunlap understood what it was like to run a busy office, after all. He just wanted his schedule. Instead, Kobach called Dunlap’s suit “baseless and paranoid,” and insisted that Dunlap was “making assumptions about commission business occurring without his knowledge.” Kobach said he looked forward to refuting it all in court. Three days before Christmas, however, a federal judge quickly found in Dunlap’s favor, ruling that the commission’s “indefensible” position “ignores the law.” They could not exclude Dunlap from a presidential advisory commission of which he was a member.
The court ordered the commission to turn over thousands of pages of documents, ensure genuine transparency, and also to include Dunlap as a full participant in all deliberations and activities. “I said to the attorneys, ‘I half wonder if they don’t pull the plug on this now,’” rather than accede to the court’s demands for balance and transparency, says Dunlap. It was a good hunch. The White House waited for cover, a moment when the Beltway media was distracted. That soon arrived, with the publication of Michael Wolff’s salacious Oval Office tell-all Fire and Fury, loaded with gossipy tidbits — such as Steve Bannon’s description of Ivanka Trump as “dumb as a brick” that created a cable-news and Twitter tinderbox. “Sure enough,” says Dunlap, “January 3rd, we got the email that they dissolved the commission.” Kobach had surrendered. When Dunlap and American Oversight later released all the documents online, it was clear: Kobach and Pence were running a phony and partisan investigation into a “voter fraud” problem that doesn’t actually exist. His commission wasn’t defending democracy. It was a charade that threatened it.
While the president dissolved the commission, Dunlap wasn’t finished yet. While the government argued that its dissolution should also end the fight over its records — and Dunlap’s access to the documents — courts saw it otherwise. In August 2018, Dunlap received all the records and posted the 8,000 pages online. There were revealing exchanges between White House aides, back-channel conversations between right-wing researchers, Kobach and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, even email chains limited to Kobach cronies and commission conservatives. Kobach had been running an inquisition, not a commission, and his dim Keystone Kops weren’t bright enough not to leave an email trail. “It wasn’t until I read these documents that I realized how much of a fix was already in on this thing,” Dunlap says.
Dunlap’s lawsuit even unearthed a draft of the commission’s final report, circulated by Kossack, the Pence aide, which confident staffers had started writing in November 2017, after just two public meetings. It’s titled “Evidence of Election Integrity and Voter Fraud Issues.” It doesn’t contain any. The report offers no more than a blank list of categories — “instances of fraudulent or improper voting,” “noncitizen voting,” etc. — that Kobach and his allies couldn’t fill with any actual examples. “Glaringly empty,” Dunlap says. In a letter to Pence and Kobach after he had reviewed those 8,000 pages, Dunlap named the larger problem: “That the Commission predicted it would find widespread evidence of fraud actually reveals a troubling bias,” he wrote. “A very few commissioners worked to buttress their preordained conclusions shielded from dissent or dialogue.”
Dunlap doesn’t get those late-night calls from Kobach on his cell phone any longer. I ask him if he has ever thought about why Kobach personally recruited him onto the commission, why he spent so much time courting him to join. Did Kobach imagine that Dunlap would merely roll over and play Democrat, allowing the Republicans to have their way?
Dunlap opens his hands wide and points at the bear rug spread across his floor. “I’m a Democrat and I hunt and I have guns,” he says. “It’s weird to him. They probably saw this guy who’s got a reputation for being nonpartisan. Not a lawyer. From a small state. Can’t be very smart. He won’t give us too much trouble.” Dunlap pauses and allows a small laugh. “Then I gave them trouble. They didn’t know what to do with that.”