President Trump has shut down the commission he had appointed to examine voter fraud, which is good news, since its true purpose was to spread misinformation and justify further Republican vote suppression efforts.
But don’t think for a moment that the GOP is done trying to make it harder for people to vote, particularly people who might be likely to vote for Democrats. That effort is still going strong, and it’ll be looking for new ways to use the power of the federal government to advance it.
Trump’s commission was led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who not only is the country’s most prominent advocate of vote suppression, but also is an anti-immigration activist, which is an important part of this story. The White House issued a statement saying the president “has asked the Department of Homeland Security to review [the commission’s] initial findings and determine next courses of action.”
To which you might respond, “The Department of Homeland Security? What does it have to do with this?” It’s a good question.
Now let me point you to something Kobach told Politico:
The Kansas official said he expects officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and political appointees overseeing that agency to take over the commission’s work and begin efforts to match state voter rolls to federal databases of noncitizens.
What’s going on here? I got an answer to that question from Myrna Pérez, who runs the Voting Rights and Elections project at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“The big story,” she told me,”is that purges are very likely to be the next big method of voter suppression.”
You’ve probably heard a good deal about voter ID laws. Nearly half the states have passed voter ID restrictions just since 2010, and there are numerous lawsuits challenging them that are working their way toward the Supreme Court. But Republicans all over the country — led by Kobach — are also using the purging of voter rolls as a method of preventing thousands upon thousands of legitimate voters from being able to access the ballot.
Indiana passed a law last year allowing officials to purge voters based on dubious database matches (more on that in a moment); it’s now the subject of a lawsuit. Georgia has purged hundreds of thousands of names from its rolls and sent threatening letters to people who moved within their counties without updating their registration. Next week the Supreme Court will hear a lawsuit against Ohio, which purged 1.2 million voters on the grounds that they hadn’t voted frequently enough.
Those efforts are being supported by a network of conservative organizations that try to force local jurisdictions to purge their rolls, and they’re getting help from the federal government. In June last year, the Department of Justice sent a letter to 44 states demanding information on their processes for purging voters — and it wasn’t because they were worried too many legitimate voters were being purged. To voting rights activists, this seemed a like a prelude to the DOJ filing suit to force states to undertake purges of their rolls. That’s at a time when DOJ has reversed its previous position and now supports draconian voter ID laws.
Where is the Trump administration heading now that the voter suppression commission is gone? We can get an idea from a system called Crosscheck that Kobach has promoted to states all over the country. That system flags anyone who has the same name and date of birth but is registered in more than one place as a possible instance of fraud.
You can immediately see the problem: There are going to be a huge number of people who share the same name and birthday, so people will get wrongly flagged constantly. Indeed, one analysis of the program found that Crosscheck risks eliminating huge numbers of registrations used to cast legitimate votes. Kobach sees the program as a model for what he wants to do nationally.
That brings us to the Department of Homeland Security. I need to stress that nobody knows exactly what they’ll be doing on this issue, because all we have are the somewhat vague statements from Kobach and the White House. But they have lists of immigrants and people visiting the country (like this one), and those databases are almost certainly what Kobach is after.
Here’s how it might work, according to the worrying scenario envisioned by Pérez and other voting rights advocates. The government could take voter registration lists, then crosscheck them against the DHS list, flag any “matches,” and mark those people to potentially be purged from the rolls. So, for instance, let’s say you’re an American-born citizen named Maria Gonzales and you were born on Aug. 5, 1988. But there’s a Maria Gonzales born on Aug. 5, 1988, on the DHS list, because she’s a Costa Rican national who’s here on a student visa to attend graduate school. You might well find yourself tossed off the voting rolls because the system has flagged you as being ineligible to vote.
Not only that, there’s a danger that this system could be misused in both directions. The grad student Maria Gonzales could find ICE agents knocking on her door because she’s been flagged as having illegally registered to vote, even though she didn’t. DHS has an important role to play in preventing foreign infiltration of our voting system; they’ve declared the voting system to be “critical infrastructure” and work with states and localities to keep their systems safe from hacking. But as Pérez told me, we need to ensure that such efforts don’t “somehow bleed into and justify witch hunts against Americans or folks living [in the U.S.] for supposed voter fraud.”
As I said, we don’t yet know how this is going to work or exactly what DHS is going to be asked by the White House to do. But given how comprehensive Republican voter suppression efforts have been, we can assume their bad faith with almost complete certainty. If Americans are going to be able to exercise their right to vote, we’re going to have to watch them very carefully.