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J. Christian Adams claims there's an "alien invasion" at the voting booth.
Adams, a member of President Donald Trump's election integrity commission, is dedicating his life to cleaning up registration rolls around the country and trying to prevent non-citizens from casting ballots. To do so, he's spent years suing counties to force them to purge their rolls and he's published personal information online about thousands of registered voters he believes could have committed fraud.
Adams has turned allegations of sweeping, illegal voting into a career marked by frequent litigation and a bombastic media presence — calling critics who say that there’s no widespread proof of voter fraud "flat-earthers."
"The voter rolls have serious problems that only a blind partisan could deny," Adams told NBC News in an email. "What motivates anyone who does a public service? It’s the desire to make the system work better."
Election officials say Adams is a one-man wrecking ball, claiming fraud where there is no evidence of it, while voters whose information he has published online take exception to being accused of felonies.
"I was pissed," said Edmund Cochran, 35, of Fairfax County, Virginia, who had been tagged as a noncitizen voter (he was born in New Jersey) and found that his information was made public, including his full Social Security number.
Adams turned his focus to his home state of Virginia in 2016. The group he runs, the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), released a two-part report titled "Alien Invasion" that fingered 5,556 voters as non-citizens, because their voter registration had at one point been cancelled over citizenship concerns.
"Of these illegal registrants, 1,852 cast nearly 7,500 ballots in elections dating back to 1988," according to the May 2017 report.
But Virginia's election commissioner — and the voters themselves — dispute the findings.
In Virginia, after a voter has been noted as a possible noncitizen (which occurs either because a voter tells the Department of Motor Vehicles they're a noncitizen, or someone makes an error), election officials send the voter a letter asking the voter to confirm his or her citizenship. If the officials don’t hear back in two weeks, county election officials cancel the voter’s registration.
"Nothing in this process necessarily confirms non-citizenship — only that inconsistent information has been provided," Virginia Commissioner of Elections Edgardo Cortés wrote to a state legislator who inquired about PILF’s claims.
Cortés noted that half the voters who had been called out are currently active voters who have fixed their registrations. "They (Adams and his group) were uninterested in the context — they had their own narrative that they wanted to tell," Cortés said.
When NBC News reached seven of the voters mentioned in the report, six said they were citizens. One removed voter said he is a green-card holder, not a legal voter; his registration was cancelled after 13 months on the rolls.
Reports PILF issued online included names, addresses and sometimes even complete Social Security numbers (which were later partially redacted) alongside the "felonies upon felonies" these people may have committed.
A Crusade Years in the Making
Adams has been working on the election system for years. In 2005, he was hired by the Bush administration’s Department of Justice in the voting section.
After the 2008 election, Adams investigated two members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense who stood outside a polling place on Election Day. One had carried a nightstick. Adams recommended charges against the individuals, the New Black Panther Party and the party's president. Two years later, most of the charges were dropped, with the DOJ instead opting to narrow its focus to the man who carried the nightstick.
Adams resigned in protest in 2010. He claimed racial prejudice in the Obama Department of Justice and wrote a book about it. (An internal review later concluded the dismissal of some charges was "based on a good-faith assessment of the law and facts of the case" and found "no evidence that partisan politics was a motivating factor in reaching the decision.")
By the time Obama's second term was underway, Adams was acting as a self-appointed watchdog of the nation's elections.
Working with the nonprofit American Civil Rights Union, Adams filed his first voter roll maintenance lawsuits in the spring of 2013. He and his colleagues targeted counties they say have bloated rolls, demanding more aggressive voter roll purging.
After Adams and his colleagues at the ACRU filed at least nine suits calling for more aggressive purges, some — mostly in smaller counties in Texas and Mississippi — have been settled with consent decrees, in which counties agree to purge their rolls more frequently. While some counties simply agreed to basic voter roll maintenance, others accepted far more aggressive methods.
Voting rights advocates fear that counties carrying out aggressive purges under legal duress will push officials to purge eligible voters.
"In a lot of these settlements, the push to remove people from the rolls may result in a lot of mistakes," Cameron Bell, an attorney for the liberal think tank Demos, said after fighting a lawsuit in Broward County, Florida. "That’s why Demos got involved, to make sure the parties weren’t reaching settlements that would lead to mistakes that would disenfranchise eligible voters."
A Case Study
This spring, after Trump alleged without any evidence that widespread fraud cost him the popular vote in the 2016 election, Adams thought he'd hit pay dirt.
PILF supposedly had uncovered an "astonishing" example of fraud in Virginia: Maureen Erickson, with an address in Guatemala, was registered in Prince William County.
"Ms. Erickson voted in 14 different elections — most recently in 2008 — before her registration was cancelled," PILF wrote in a report.
Adams and his fellow PILF lawyers alleged that thousands of non-citizens were registered and voting in the state, "cancelling out the valid votes of American citizens."
The Washington Times picked up the story, describing Erickson as a fraudulent voter in an article published May 30.
But there was one problem. Erickson is a U.S. missionary living in Guatemala, lawfully voting absentee in Loudon County, she told NBC News.
"I thought my identity was stolen," she said from Antigua, where she works with families and children. The cancelled registration was an outdated record from a previous home, she said; she has been legally voting in another county for years.
Privacy Concerns Mount
Cochran, the falsely accused legal voter, said he reached out to PILF over the publication of his complete Social Security number. In response, the group blamed the county for releasing the form without redacting it.
"I told them they had a moral obligation that they should fact-check, or contact me," Cochran said he told PILF.
Peter Swire, a privacy and cyber-security expert and a professor at Georgia Tech, said fingering someone for having possibly committed a crime without proof is questionable. "It’s even worse if you include their sensitive, personal information," he said.
Adams defended his effort. "These are public records. You understand that when it comes to public records, they are public, right?" he wrote in an email. "The law makes the information public record."
Asked about citizens like Cochran branded as "aliens" in his organization's report, Adams said, “If they were in fact citizens,” their removal is also "appalling."
"These were defective registration and removal procedures, procedures which must be improved," he said.
Taking the Fight National
Next year, Trump's voter fraud panel will likely propose legislation to modernize elections and prevent fraud.
Robert Popper, a former Justice Department official, suggested that Adams’ interactions with counties over bloated rolls may help guide the commission in that regard. The "Alien Invasion" reports champion proof-of-citizenship requirements, something the fraud panel's vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has signaled he wants.
However, voting-rights advocates say those requirements can create undue barriers to the ballot box. In Kansas, in the first years with a proof-of-citizenship voter registration requirement in place, the Brennan Center for Justice found that between 8 and14 percent of new registrants were barred from registering.
“There are ways to examine and reach the truth about our elections," Adams said at the fraud commission's first meeting, "without harming a single legitimate voter registration."