Before the 2016 election, Donald Trump repeatedly insisted that there might be rampant voter fraud in states like Pennsylvania. Part of this was clearly that he really believed the rhetoric he’d read on conservative websites that voter fraud was a frequently occurring crime, despite the lack of evidence to that effect. Part of it, too, though, was that Trump was trailing in the polls, and claiming that there was fraud gave him a possible excuse in the event that he lost.
When he won, one might think that this argument would be abandoned. But Trump, smarting from the fact that he won the electoral college while losing the popular vote by a historic margin, continued to argue that the election was rife with fraud. This was not only a weird argument, coming from the guy who won, but it was also tricky given that Trump won Pennsylvania, narrowly. Was there still fraud in Pennsylvania? Well, after the election, the attention of supporters of Trump turned in another direction: to California, where it was posited that illegal immigrants flooded the polls, helping to make up a popular-vote margin that otherwise would not have favored Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
This was all nonsense, of course, claims made without any evidence in an effort to make Trump’s victory seem less marginal.
So Trump decided to look for evidence, tapping Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to partner with Vice President Pence on a commission to study voter fraud, which is a bit like forming a commission to study how to prevent people from being struck by lightning. It happens, sure, but very, very rarely and not enough to affect things to any great degree. But ensuring that no one ever got hit by lightning would require a lot of cumbersome rules that many would find grating.
Kobach, a self-styled anti-fraud crusader with a very short list of victories, created rules in Kansas that ended up demanding additional verification from 14 percent of his state’s voters, moving them into a sort of voting limbo and preventing valid voters from casting ballots without jumping through additional hoops. In 2012, a voter ID law in Kansas kept over 30,000 Kansans from casting votes — a group that skewed younger and nonwhite. That skewed, in other words, Democratic. Kobach identified a handful of people who broke voting laws, but at the cost of prohibiting thousands of legitimate voters from casting ballots.
On Thursday, news broke that Kobach’s commission was seeking full voter files from all 50 states, including names, addresses and the last four digits of each person’s Social Security number. The idea, clearly, is to match voters with similar names from one state to another to see if there is a glut of people crossing state lines to cast multiple votes. Something, we will add once again, for which there is no other evidence.
Some states have already declined to offer that information for the simple reason that they are not legally allowed to. Others, like Trump’s longtime foe California, declined to do so because they saw where this was going: The data would be used to scale Kobach’s voter-limbo system to a national level, again mostly affecting poorer and younger voters. California was joined by Massachusetts, Virginia, Kentucky and, on Friday, New York.
Which by itself means that Kobach’s commission is probably doomed to failure.
Consider the scale of the states that have declined to participate. There are about 175 million active registered voters in the United States, according to voter records maintained by a firm called L2. (In most states, voter files are public records, allowing campaigns to target voters with mail and so on.) On the charts below, each block is 1 million voters.
The five states that have declined to provide Kobach with their files make up nearly a quarter of all of the active voters in the United States; 10 percent of voters live in California alone. Meaning that Kobach’s commission will have no way to include those voters in his system.
We should also remember how much movement there is between states. In 2015, Census Bureau data indicates that more than half a million people moved to California from one of the other states. Another 250,000 moved to New York. Records for those 750,000 people won’t be able to be compared with their previous states of residence.
Tens of thousands of people came to California from a slew of other states, too. They won’t be included in Kobach’s hunt — nor will those who moved from California to, say, Texas — 65,000 of whom did so.
States in red are withholding data as of Friday.
Trump and his supporters have repeatedly pointed to a report from Pew Research. In 2012, Pew found millions of outdated voter records, a function of people moving between states (or dying, etc.) and their old registrations not being updated. Pew’s point wasn’t that there was fraud; again, there is no evidence of rampant voter fraud using outdated registrations or anything else. Pew’s point was that states should do a better job managing their records.
Kobach’s commission was created by a president who used Pew’s report to sloppily insinuate that there were millions voting illegally. The report makes clear, though, that Kobach will find lots of people registered in multiple states (including a number of people who work for the president), which by itself says nothing about fraud. But Kobach could drop some huge number that Trump could use to pressure Congress to pass a bill that makes it harder to vote — doing little but decreasing the number of Democrats who cast ballots.
By withholding their data, California, New York and the other states will make Kobach’s number smaller — as well as cast doubt on his ultimate findings. Supporters of the commission will position this as obstructionist. Given the political intent of the commission, that’s an obstructionism that California Democrats would probably embrace.