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Opinion Trump’s new ‘voter fraud’ commission: A tool to help GOP win elections

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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Today, President Trump signed an executive order creating a “presidential advisory commission on election integrity.” But no one should be fooled: the purpose of this commission is to provide ammunition for Republican efforts at the state and federal level to suppress the votes of Democrats.

The executive order lists as part of its mission identifying “those vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registration and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registration and fraudulent voting.”

But it’s as likely to find real evidence of voter fraud as O.J. is to find the real killers.

Like many things that come out of the White House, this commission has its roots in one of Donald Trump’s delusions. Plainly irked that Hillary Clinton won nearly three million more votes than he did, Trump said on Twitter in late November, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Trump kept repeating this bizarre lie no matter how often it was debunked. Apparently someone told him that millions of people are registered in more than one state, but failed to explain that it’s only because when people move they don’t write to the board of elections to cancel their old registrations. I myself may be registered in as many as five states; I couldn’t tell you what happened to my old registrations.

On Aug. 1, a federal judge declined to block the president's voter fraud commission from collecting voter data. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

In any case, Trump somehow took from this factoid that 1) millions of people intentionally registered in multiple places, 2) they managed to be in both places on election day so they could vote more than once, and 3) they all voted for Hillary Clinton. As they are required to do, Trump’s staff had to go out in public and defend his ludicrous fantasy, and that defense soon turned into a pledge to create a commission to get to the bottom of things. So here we are.

That doesn’t mean that this commission won’t serve a practical purpose, because it absolutely will. The proof is in the person chosen to lead it. Vice President Pence will chair the committee, but given his other duties there’s no way to know how deeply he’ll be involved. The real power is likely to reside with the person who has been reported  to be the vice chair: Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state. Those of you familiar with the voting rights issue will no doubt say, “Of course it’s Kobach.”

That’s because Kris Kobach is perhaps America’s foremost purveyor of the myth of voter fraud, the false idea that huge numbers of people are voting illegally (especially undocumented immigrants; Kobach is also a fervent anti-immigrant crusader). He has gone on a years-long crusade to convince people that vote fraud is a gigantic problem that can only be addressed through measures that make it drastically harder for certain people to vote. Unlike other secretaries of state, Kobach has the power to prosecute people for voter fraud, and with that authority at his disposal and an absolute obsession with proving that this is a gargantuan problem, he has managed to obtain a total of 8 convictions for vote fraud. Exactly one (1) involved an undocumented immigrant.

This isn’t out of line with the evidence about voter fraud on a national basis. One comprehensive study found 31 cases of potential voter fraud in the entire country over a 14-year period during which over a billion votes were cast. Another study found 10 cases of voter impersonation in the entire country over 12 years. Republicans sweep that evidence away with a wave of the hand, and make this argument in response:

  1. Without voter ID laws and other restrictions, it’s theoretically possible for one person to impersonate another person at the polls, even if it’s the most laughably inefficient way to steal an election.
  2. We found this guy this one time who perpetrated that kind of impersonation.
  3. Therefore, we need sweeping laws that make it harder for people to vote, particularly people who are poor, African-Americans, students, or others likely to vote for Democrats.

We can’t discuss this issue without acknowledging that the central pillar of the Republican vote suppression effort is making it harder for African-Americans to vote. The best you can say about it is that it’s likely motivated more by pure partisanship than by racism, but that doesn’t do much to make it less repellent. As a federal court wrote last year when striking down a law passed by Republicans in the North Carolina legislature, the provisions in the law “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Republicans obtained voting and other data broken out by race, then used that data to design their law — requiring IDs most likely to be held by whites but refusing those African-Americans were more likely to possess, and eliminating the early voting days most used by African-Americans, among other things.

That’s just one state, but Republican vote suppression efforts have been going on across the country, and some of them are shameless in their discriminatory intent. Texas’ voter ID law, for instance, which has been repeatedly struck down in court, allows voters to use gun licenses but not student IDs from state universities as proof of identity. One Democratic study found that Wisconsin’s law likely kept 200,000 people — disproportionately African-American — from the polls in 2016, in a state Donald Trump won by less than 23,000 votes.

We should acknowledge that at this point the administration is paying a small amount of lip service to being bipartisan. They claim they’ll study vote suppression as well as voter fraud, but it’s a near-certainty that they won’t be addressing the organized, state-sponsored vote suppression that Republicans are engaged in. And they’re considering adding a couple of Democrats to the commission in addition to the Republicans who will dominate it.

We should also understand that there are plenty of problems with our voting system, because it’s spread across 50 states and thousands of counties and cities. There are lots of inaccuracies on voter rolls, but most of them don’t affect the integrity of the vote — if some joker fills out a registration form as Mickey Mouse of 123 Buttface Avenue, it might not be great to have that entry in the database, but it doesn’t present a profound threat to democracy.

The far, far, bigger problem is the things that make voting harder and tabulation vulnerable — the long lines on election day due to insufficient equipment (which somehow never seems to be a problem in wealthy white neighborhoods), the electronic systems that don’t create paper trails to enable recounts, and the laws that make it more difficult to register and get into the voting booth.

Let’s be clear: from President Trump to Vice President Pence to Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who famously prosecuted a former aide to Martin Luther King for helping elderly African-Americans fill out their absentee ballots), this is an administration absolutely committed to the use of vote suppression as a means to advancing the Republican Party’s fortunes. This commission will be a tool in that effort.

Exactly how, we don’t yet know. Perhaps they’ll find a few dramatic anecdotes (An illegal alien rapist cast a vote in Podunk County!) which will then be breathlessly repeated as justification for a new round of state vote suppression laws. Or perhaps they’ll come up with a national voter ID bill to impose on the whole country (which would be legally possible as long as it only applied to federal elections).

One thing I can promise you is that the commission won’t be taking an objective look at what really ails our voting system. For that, we’ll have to wait for a different administration.