In May, President Trump created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to investigate electoral fraud in last November’s election, appointing Vice President Pence as its head. While the president has repeatedly argued that millions of unauthorized voters cast ballots, political scientists have debunked his claims.
Experts do believe that the quality of elections in the United States could improve. But the Pence commission is unusual in several ways that may prevent that improvement.
Here’s what the United States could learn from how other countries reduce electoral law violations, maintain accurate voter rolls, improve voter registration and ensure that voter’s choices are reliably recorded.
Look forward, not back
The Pence commission’s objective is to evaluate the strengths and vulnerabilities of the voting process. Its first task, however, has been to investigate Trump’s contention that millions of illegal votes were cast last November.
Most electoral commissions are trying to solve problems — long mentioned by journalists, civil society organizations and academic experts — that prevent citizens from voting or prevent their votes from being counted. These include long lines, outdated machines with serious cybersecurity failures and problems that prevent voters from registering (such as malfunctioning electronic poll books). The ones that actually succeed at fixing these problems and easing access to the polls have a few things in common, as we’ll discuss below.
But instead of taking aim at the most widely acknowledged problems in U.S. elections, the Pence commission is checking for bloated registration rolls, trying to find 2016 voters who cast ballots despite being fraudulently registered in more than one state, noncitizens, dead or otherwise ineligible. While experts have found some ineligible voters on the rolls, there’s no evidence that dead people and those who moved out of a state voted illegally.
By contrast, in most countries that have had elections riddled with fraud — like Costa Rica or Mexico — commissions were established to solve problems in future elections, not attempting to rewrite or even correct the past. For instance, Mexico’s 1988 presidential election included many instances of egregious electoral fraud, going from stolen and destroyed ballots to the sudden crash of the computer system tabulating the votes. After widespread outrage, the government established the Federal Electoral Institute (now the Instituto Nacional Electoral), an independent agency that oversees elections and with technical competency to prevent fraud. Today, Mexico’s elections are unlikely to show instances of fraud as blatant as that observed 30 years ago.
Similarly, rigged elections were the norm in Costa Rica during the first half of the 20th century. In fact, after claims of irregularities in the voter rolls and vote count during the 1948 presidential election led the legislature to annul the presidential election, the country fell into civil war. A year later, the national legislature created the Supreme Tribunal of Elections, which isolated the executive and legislative powers from the electoral administration. This institution is considered today as one of the most professional and clean election management bodies in the world.
The United States has previously attempted to review its election systems, with the Carter-Ford commission of 2001 and the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) of 2013. The Carter-Ford commission was charged with examining problems in the contested 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. It did not, however, investigate the question of which candidate had actually won more votes in the state of Florida. Rather, it examined problems everywhere like confusing ballots, malfunctioning voting machines and voter rolls that excluded qualified voters.
But few took up its recommendations. By 2012, only about one-third of the states had passed any legislation on voter registration.
President Barack Obama appointed the PCEA in 2013, charging it with figuring out how to reduce long voter lines to encourage more citizens to vote and to prevent state governments from refusing to extend voting hours. But that was just the starting point. The PCEA produced many recommendations aimed at improving electoral management, including online voter registration, access to early and absentee voting and improving voter technology. The recommendations have been adopted by dozens of states, and they contributed to a significant decrease of the wait time to vote in 2016 in comparison to 2012.
Build political consensus on the need and the goals
The most successful electoral commissions have built a broad political consensus that the system should be improved and that the commission would be fair. For instance, Obama’s PCEA which was supported by a wide bipartisan consensus, offered recommendations supported unanimously by commission members from both sides of the aisle.
After Mexico’s notorious 1988 election, parties agreed to select “citizen councilors” with technical expertise to represent the interests of all parties in more reliable elections. In Costa Rica, Chile, Uruguay and Spain, successful electoral overhauls came from agreement between government and opposition parties.
That’s not true of the Pence commission. Democrats suspect the panel is just an instrument to either give backing to false allegations of fraud or to pass more restrictive voter ID laws, which could effectively disenfranchise marginal voters. The suspicion of bad faith comes in part from who has been appointed to serve on it. That includes people like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has stood by Trump’s claims that millions of voters cast ballots illegally in 2016. Kobach is known for supporting strict laws that make voting costlier, like requiring photo ID. The Democratic National Committee’s chair, Tom Perez, called the commission a “Trump propaganda factory.”
Several experiences across U.S. states have shown that one-sided reforms seldom increase broad-confidence in elections: Democrats are as likely to distrust changes that restrict voter registration as Republicans are to allege fraud under lax registration rules.
Minimum and enforceable national requirements for conducting elections
Improving the integrity of elections in the United States requires consensus not only between parties, but also between states and the federal government. As in Switzerland, Australia and Sweden, electoral administration in the United States is the responsibility of subnational authorities. But in those nations, locally administered elections must meet national requirements for ensuring a consistent process across the country. That’s not true in the United States.
Almost every state in the nation — red, purple and blue — denied the voting commission’s request for detailed voter registration records, citing concerns about voter privacy and federal overreach.
Of course, the United States already has federal bodies that oversee elections: the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). But unlike electoral commissions in other countries, these bodies can’t do very much to improve the quality of the electoral process. The FEC primarily collects and disseminates information on campaign finance. The EAC, which some congressional Republicans are trying to eliminate, certifies new voting systems and helps states meet minimal federal requirements for improving these systems. Unlike most modern electoral management bodies, neither the FEC nor the EAC registers voters and keeps voter rolls, determines candidate eligibility, schedules and administers elections, counts votes or arbitrates disputes.
If not improving elections, what might be the effect of the Pence commission?
In principle, the voting commission appears to be a good opportunity to shore up declining public confidence in U.S. elections. But to be successful, such a commission would be better off with a broad consensus on its mandate, a focus on improving systems for the future and cooperation among state and national authorities.
Francisco Cantu is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston.
German Feierherd is a postdoctoral research associate at Yale University’s Program on Democracy.
This essay was produced in partnership with brightlinewatch.org.