MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner defended both his role on President Donald Trump's election fraud commission and the panel's existence Tuesday as it began its second meeting amid persistent criticism that its ultimate goal is voter suppression.
Gardner, a Democrat, has faced calls to resign from the commission since last week, when its vice chairman, Republican Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, alleged that thousands voted illegally in New Hampshire last year because they registered using out-of-state driver's licenses.
Kobach argued that the numbers are "proof" that voter fraud helped elect Democrat Maggie Hassan to the U.S. Senate, though state law allows college students and others to vote without obtaining New Hampshire driver's licenses.
As the meeting got underway Tuesday morning, Kobach said he will address that issue later in the day, and Gardner indirectly referred to it in his opening remarks.
Gardner, the nation's longest-serving secretary of state, said his participation on the panel is in keeping with New Hampshire's long tradition of civic participation, from being the first colony to declare its separation from the king of England to hosting the first-in-the-nation presidential primary every four years.
"I want to first direct my comments to the people of New Hampshire because some are questioning why I am here," he said. "New Hampshire people are not accustomed to walking away or stepping down from their civic duty, and I will not, either."
He also defended the commission, saying that while the group's ability to reach consensus is threatened by the partisan reaction it has evoked, its work is just getting underway and it has not yet reached any conclusions.
"In order to live free we must have a stable election process to keep the confidence of our citizens. This is, in a nutshell, why this commission was established," he said, referring to New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" motto.
Protesters outside the meeting had their own take on the motto, however, holding signs that read "Vote Free or Die." Joining them in calling for the commission to be dismantled was former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat and founder of Let America Vote.
"This commission was formed to justify the biggest lie a sitting president has ever told," he said. "They should be ashamed of themselves."
The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity has spurred controversy from the moment it was established in May. Critics say Trump, a Republican, is using the commission to support his unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud that cost him the popular vote during the 2016 election. Democrat Hillary Clinton received 2.8 million more votes than he did, though he won the electoral college.
While there have been isolated cases of voter fraud in the U.S., there is no evidence of it being a widespread problem, as Trump suggests.
The secretary of state in California, where Clinton got more than 60 percent of the vote, called Tuesday's meeting the latest insult in an ongoing quest to suppress voting rights.
"The commission will stop at nothing in their effort to use pre-determined findings to justify their voter suppression agenda. Particularly troubling is Secretary Kobach's leadership of the commission while moonlighting as a columnist for Breitbart and campaigning for Governor of Kansas," said Democrat Alex Padilla. "And while disappointing, it is sadly not surprising that the commission will not hear testimony from a single person of color or woman."
A spokesman for the commission didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The commission first met in Washington in July, shortly after letters to officials in all 50 states seeking a long list of information about voters, including partial Social Security numbers, dates of birth and party affiliations if such information was considered public in their states. After sparking widespread privacy concerns, Kobach later sent a revised letter explaining the information would not be released publicly.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have refused to comply, while three remain undecided, according to an AP survey. Several of those states, including Mississippi, Tennessee and Wyoming, are led by Republicans.
The commission also has faced lawsuits over its activities, including claims it violated federal law by collecting private voter data and by holding meetings without providing public notice or opening them to the public.