The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why we should be very afraid of Trump’s vote suppression commission

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)

Most presidential commissions don’t accomplish very much — they meet a few times, do some research and produce a report, which then gets filed away and few people ever read, the list of recommendations seldom acted on. But President Trump’s Presidential Commission on Election Integrity is different.

Its goal is nothing less than the supercharging of recent Republican efforts to disenfranchise Democratic voters and permanently tip the scales of elections in the GOP’s favor. Its true name should be the Commission on Vote Suppression, and it’s getting right to work.

This commission is led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is the country’s premier advocate of vote suppression (Vice President Pence is the nominal chair, but as vice chair, Kobach is obviously running things). We’ll get more into Kobach’s agenda in a moment, but first, the latest news. This week the commission sent a letter to all 50 state governments demanding that they send the commission their full voter files, including names, addresses, birth dates, party affiliation, voting history and Social Security numbers for every voter in America.

While some of that information is publicly available for a fee (parties and candidates buy it to target voters), Democratic officials in a number of states have essentially told Kobach to buzz off. The secretaries of state in Kentucky, California, and Massachusetts have refused, and the secretary of state in Connecticut said she will withhold some parts of the data, noting that Kobach “has a lengthy record of illegally disenfranchising eligible voters in Kansas.” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said, “I have no intention of honoring this request,” and other Democratic states are sure to follow.

The commission will probably end up obtaining most of the data it is after one way or another. So what are they going to do with it? It’s no secret: Under the guise of fighting “voter fraud,” they’ll use it as a tool to disenfranchise thousands, perhaps even millions of people, in order to solidify the Republican advantage in elections.

If you aren’t familiar with him, Kris Kobach has made a crusade out of denying people the right to vote, particularly racial minorities (I recommend this recent profile of Kobach by Ari Berman). Kobach, who is running for governor in Kansas, is currently the only secretary of state who has the power to prosecute voter fraud, a power he was granted by the Kansas legislature after convincing it that thousands upon thousands of people were voting illegally in the state. But as Berman reports:

Though Kobach received the authority to prosecute fraud cases after warning that voting by ‘aliens’ was rampant, the nine convictions he has won since 2015 have primarily been citizens 60 and over who own property in two states and were confused about voting requirements. Only one noncitizen has been convicted.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Kansans have been blocked from registering by the 2011 law he championed that requires documentary proof of citizenship in order to register.

Kobach was also recently fined by a federal judge for lying to the court about documents in a case in which he’s being sued by the ACLU. But his arguments about vast numbers of people voting illegally found a welcome audience in Trump, who has convinced himself that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally for Hillary Clinton and that voters registered in two states is a major problem that has contributed to rampant voter fraud.

The truth is that while lots of people are registered in multiple places, there’s almost no evidence that double-voting is anything more than a minuscule problem. Here’s a news flash: People move, and when they register in their new home, they’ll be registered in two places. But that doesn’t mean they’re voting in two places. During the course of my voting life, I’ve registered in four states, plus the District of Columbia. That doesn’t mean I’m committing voter fraud; it just means that my name is on a list in states I used to live in. No one is going to the polls claiming to be me.

We see this pattern again and again: Republicans complain that there is some huge voter fraud problem that requires sweeping new laws in order to solve, but when it’s investigated, it turns out that the problem is somewhere between microscopic and nonexistent. But in the meantime, they’ve stolen thousands of people’s voting rights — people who just happen to disproportionately be Democrats.

So what is Kobach’s commission going to do with the data it gets? We don’t know for sure, but it appears that it has two broad goals. The first is essentially a PR effort aimed at public opinion and state legislatures: Foster the impression that fraud is widespread, which then makes it easier for Republican-run states to impose draconian laws making it as hard as possible for people to register and vote. The second apparent goal is more direct: Create lists of allegedly questionable voters that they’ll give to states in order to convince them to purge those people from the rolls, by showing that they might be registered in more than one place.

This is what Kobach has already been doing with a multi-state program called Crosscheck. One academic study of Crosscheck revealed that it flags thousands upon thousands of people who are allegedly voting in multiple states and recommends that they be purged from the rolls, when in fact these are simply people who have the same name and birth date as someone in another state. How many people named John Smith or Jennifer Wilson who were born on July 30th do you think there are in the United States?

In addition, Kobach is apparently planning to use a Homeland Security database of non-citizens — visa holders, green-card holders and the like — to flag voters to be purged. At this point you might be asking: Won’t all this affect Republicans, too? It will, but when done on a sufficiently broad scale, this is a numbers game that works to Republicans’ benefit. Let’s say there’s a green-card holder named Hector Gonzales who was born on April 3rd, and they find 75 different voters named Hector Gonzales with that birthday around the country and purge them all on the dubious grounds that they all might be that one non-citizen Hector Gonzales. Even if there are a few Republicans born on April 3rd named Hector Gonzales who lose their voting rights, the GOP will come out ahead, since most of those Hector Gonzalezes are probably Democrats.

The same is true of voter-ID laws. Some Republicans may be unable to find their birth certificates and be disenfranchised, but everyone knows that Democrats are affected more. One statistical analysis found that “strict ID laws cause a reduction in Democratic turnout by 8.8 percentage points, compared to a reduction of 3.6 percentage points for Republicans.” So the math works out in the GOP’s favor.

Let’s be clear: The sole purpose of this commission on “election integrity” is to suppress votes and give the GOP a structural advantage in every election. It’s being led by Kris Kobach, whose twin missions in life are to scale back immigration and to make voting more difficult. Other commission members include Ken Blackwell, a far-right activist who as secretary of state of Ohio in 2004 (while he was simultaneously serving as state co-chair of the George W. Bush campaign) tried to disenfranchise people whose registration forms were submitted on insufficiently heavy paper stock. The administration just added Hans von Spakovsky, who before Kobach emerged was known as the country’s most prominent advocate of vote suppression.

These people are not trying to determine whether there are problems with our voting system and find the best solutions to those problems. They have come together to promote the myth of voter fraud and enable vote suppression in order to advantage the Republican Party. No one should be fooled into thinking this enterprise is anything other than that.