Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, second from right, testifies before a panel of House Democrats. Ana Radelat /
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, second from right, testifies before a panel of House Democrats. Ana Radelat /

Washington – Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill on Tuesday told a panel of House Democrats that she is “alarmed” a voting commission created by President Donald Trump aims to suppress the votes of minorities.

“I am really afraid that this is going in the direction where states will purge their (voter) rolls,” Merrill said.

A Democrat who was until last week the head of the National Association of Secretaries of State, Merrill was a key witness at an unofficial hearing on voting rights held by Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

The hearing also was organized by members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who fear Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity was created to suppress the votes of minorities, who tend to support Democratic candidates.

The commission is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, who pushed through a tough voter ID law in his state. Trump created the panel because he believes millions of votes were cast illegally in November’s election, although that claim is unsubstantiated.

Merrill testified that she met Kobach for the first time at a National Association of Secretaries of State meeting in 2011, shortly after she was first elected Connecticut’s secretary of the state.

“I went there to learn what I could,” Merrill said.

She was surprised when Kobach gave a speech about voter fraud and “ways to prevent people from voting.”

“I think I said, ‘I thought this was to get more people voting, not less,’” Merrill said.

Because of Trump’s allegations of voter fraud, Merill said, “We need to shore up the public’s trust in the integrity of the system.”

Connecticut has a voter ID law, but it allows state residents to present a wide range of documents to prove their identities. Kobach’s plan – which is under court challenge – requires proof of citizenship and photo identification.

Janai Nelson of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the commission’s goal is “to manufacture false evidence of voter fraud against black and Latino voters.”

The voting commission is scheduled to meet for the first time in Washington, D.C.,  on Wednesday. The panel has 13 members, including the secretaries of state from New Hampshire and Maine.

Kobach already has caused controversy by asking all state election officials for information about their voters — both public data and information that must be kept private under federal or state laws.

That provoked a backlash against the commission by nearly all of the nation’s voting officials, who were concerned the move violated states’ rights and was an attempt to suppress voting.

In response to a lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center that said “the commission’s demand for detailed voter histories violates millions of Americans’ constitutional right to privacy,” the commission has asked states to stop sending the voter data until the matter is resolved.

Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center told the panel that the request for voter records, which included driver’s license information, the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers, records of military service and other records the disclosure of which is forbidden by most state laws, “was unconstitutional.”

Merrill has said she would release information state law allows to the commission if it  followed state procedures for requesting that information, but withhold other information.

There are now nine lawsuits aimed at stopping the collection of data, the latest filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on Tuesday.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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