The Trump administration has appointed a Marylander to a controversial panel probing alleged voter fraud in last year's presidential election even though the veteran state official has little-to-no experience in elections.
Deputy Secretary of State Luis E. Borunda, a former Baltimore County school board member, was named last week to Trump's Election Integrity Commission, a 15-member, bipartisan panel President Donald J. Trump created with an executive order in May after alleging millions voted illegally for his opponent.
While the commission itself has drawn derision from some Democrats as an effort to legitimize Trump's unfounded claim, Borunda's appointment prompted some head scratching in Maryland and elsewhere. Unlike in many other states, the Secretary of State's office in Maryland has no role in voter registration or the administration of elections.
Statewide oversight of elections in Maryland is handled instead by an independent board.
"If you're creating a commission to study elections, you'd want the election experts to be appointed," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "Instead we have someone from an agency that really has almost nothing to do with our elections."
David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, described the appointment as another example of "shoddy work" by the commission and its vice chairman, Kris W. Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas.
"He clearly thought he was getting a Republican … official who he could tout as an expert and instead he got someone who has no relative knowledge, experience or expertise in running elections," Rocah said
Kobach, dismissed the criticism as "ignorant of the statutory duties" of the office and pointed to the responsibilities it has regarding elections: Naming presidential candidates who will be placed on the ballot, writing statewide referendum questions and certifying election results — a job it shares with the comptroller and state treasurer, among others.
"Deputy Secretary Borunda's experience in the management and certification of elections, along with his many other qualifications, make him an excellent member of this presidential commission," Kobach said in an email in response to questions posed about the appointment by The Baltimore Sun to the White House.
Still, the secretary of state — an appointee of the governor — has no role in the actual running of elections, a fact it acknowledges on its website.
"Please note," a disclaimer on the site reads, "elections in Maryland are administered by the State Board of Elections, an independent state agency. General inquiries about voter registration, voting, ballot questions, and other election matters should be directed to the State Board of Elections."
The commission held its first organization call this week and will hold its first formal meeting on July 19 in Washington, the White House said on Wednesday.
"The integrity of the vote is a foundation of our democracy," said Vice President Mike Pence, the commission's chairman, in a statement. "This bipartisan commission will review ways to strengthen that integrity in order to protect and preserve the principle of one person, one vote.
The statement said the commission already reached out to states to request state voter roll data and feedback on how to improve election integrity.
That sparked an immediate backlash as several states, including Virginia, Kentucky and New York, rejected the request seeking names, addresses, dates of birth, party affiliations, partial Social Security numbers and recent voting histories. Much of that data is already public information.
The Maryland Board of Elections has asked the state attorney general's office for advice on how it should respond. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the office is reviewing the matter.
Maryland's secretary of state — currently John C. Wobensmith — decides who will appear on presidential primary ballots, based on a legally ambiguous standard of being "advocated or recognized in the news media." A candidate can make an end run around the secretary of state's judgment by getting 400 signatures in each of the state's eight congressional districts.
The office not only writes statewide referendum questions, it also receives petitions to put those questions on the ballot and delivers them to the State Board of Elections.
State law requires the secretary of state — along with the comptroller, state treasurer, the clerk of the Court of Appeals and the attorney general — to sit on the Board of State Canvassers, which formally certifies election results. The work is mostly perfunctory.
Nine states, including Maryland, have independent boards overseeing elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two dozen states, including Kansas, have an elected secretary of state as their chief election official.
Maryland's five-member elections board is appointed by the governor with consent from the Senate. It includes both Democrats and Republicans.
Borunda, a Republican, got his start in state politics in 2003 by creating a Hispanic group to support the candidacy of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The Republican appointed Borunda, a Baltimore County businessman, to various boards, including his county education board. In 2006, Ehrlich appointed him deputy secretary of state.
Gov. Larry Hogan, the current Republican governor, appointed Borunda to the same job in 2015, making him among the first officials to join the administration. Borunda's online bio says he oversees a portfolio that includes international affairs, finance and administration, state documents, charities and legal affairs and safety and support.
The bio makes no mention of elections.
Borunda said that the Maryland secretary of state plays "an active role" with the National Associations of Secretary's of State, where he said, the office is "engaged in this issue on a variety of levels including regular meetings where the election processes best practices are discussed.
"We are confident that we will bring a fresh set of eyes, some out of the box thinking and some credibility to a highly politicized issue," Borunda said in an email. "All you have to do is look at how Maryland's congressional districts are drawn to realize what can happen when you are knee deep in it."
The state's current congressional districts — the subject of considerable criticism and litigation — were drawn not by state election officials but rather the General Assembly and then Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.
Among the others named to the commission are the secretaries of state in Indiana, New Hampshire and Maine as well as a former secretary of state of Ohio.
Linda H. Lamone, the Maryland state administrator of elections, declined to comment.
Trump claimed on Twitter in November that he "won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." He repeated that claim in a meeting with congressional leaders shortly after his inauguration, according to news reports, suggesting that 3 million to 5 million illegal votes cost him the popular vote.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes, but Trump won the Electoral College vote.
The president has never offered evidence to back up his claim, presumably based on the notion that immigrants in the country illegally cast ballots, and he has been rebuked by both Democratic and Republican officials for undermining confidence in the nation's electoral system.