For any other president, then, an executive order establishing a “presidential advisory commission on election integrity” such as the one Donald Trump signed on Thursday would prompt a flurry of questions about why such a commission was needed. For Trump, though, it’s part of the package: Directing government resources, however modest, to bolster a faulty political argument that he’s embraced despite being repeatedly shown that it’s false.
Per the executive order, the commission will “study the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections” and submit a report that identifies “laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices” that enhance or undermine confidence in the integrity of the voting system. The report will also identify “vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.” In other words, places on the human body susceptible to damage from lightning strikes.
Trump didn’t introduce the idea of targeting voter fraud. It’s been a hobbyhorse for Republicans for some time, offered as a rationale for new voter-registration limits that have the consistent side effect of making it harder for Democratic-voting populations to cast a ballot.
What Trump did is turbocharge it, using his platform on the campaign trail and then as president-elect to claim (completely without evidence) that fraud was rampant and threatened the results of national elections. When he first started down this path last summer, it seemed as if he was mostly seeding excuses for his likely loss in advance. But he kept up the same nonsensical claims even after he won, almost certainly because his win came despite having earned nearly 3 million fewer votes than his opponent.
The math there was simple. Lose by a few million votes and … voila.
Later, Trump made obvious the evidence for the claim: One random tweet from a guy who, six months later, still hasn’t backed up his wild claims about fraud.
Trump just cobbles together a mishmash of ideas to support the idea that fraud is rampant. A Pew Trusts study from 2012 which pointed out that voter rolls aren’t cleaned up regularly, which Trump blurs into an assertion that somehow millions vote illegally. Or a study that estimated that millions of immigrants in the country illegally might be casting ballots — which was undercut both by analysis pointing out a methodological flaw and by the lack of any evidence of millions of illegal voters.
That’s really the thing. It’s not as if no one is looking for examples of fraud; they are. They just aren’t finding much. The administration of George W. Bush looked hard for fraud, and found next to nothing.
One of the people who’s been hunting for fraud is Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state. He recently made the rounds of the cable news networks after senior Trump aide Stephen Miller suggested that Kobach could prove the administration’s fraud claims. Kobach claimed that millions of people were probably registered to vote illegally because, in Kansas, there were probably some 18,000 noncitizens on the voter rolls, which he knew because he’d found about 115 noncitizens who were either registered to vote or who had tried to register. In total, Kobach has won nine convictions for voter fraud — but only one was of a noncitizen.
This is the success story a senior White House official pointed to.
Kobach also demonstrates how the specter of voter fraud is used to affect voting patterns. The state of Kansas implemented a rule requiring new voters to prove that they were citizens, an effort Kobach championed. The effect was to prevent a number of prospective voters from being able to cast ballots — a group that Reuters determined “disproportionately [hit] young voters, who often do not have ready access to the needed documents, as well as unaffiliated and Democratic voters in the Republican-controlled state.” The rule was eventually blocked by the courts.
Again, this is trademark Trump. Violent crime is near its lowest point in decades, but it’s politically expedient for him to claim otherwise, so he does. Immigrants commit crime at lower rates than native-born citizens, but Trump suggests that’s not the case. Trump insists that his immigration ban is necessary to stem terrorism, but it wouldn’t have prevented recent attacks in the United States.
In this case, his party will go along with it for an immediately obvious reason: It will provide cover for new laws making it trickier for Democrats to vote. A new study claiming that voter-ID laws — laws tightening registration rules — cost Hillary Clinton a victory in Wisconsin in 2016 is suspect, but a study from the Government Accountability Office estimated that voter-ID laws in Tennessee and (wait for it) Kansas led to 100,000 fewer voters in 2012. Younger voters and black voters were disproportionately affected.
A commission to study something that isn’t a serious problem that will lead to a predictable set of conclusions that reinforce a political point. That itself is certainly not a new political strategy, but it’s one that’s nonetheless worth calling out.