But Lott also occasionally branches out into other topics. Back in 2006, he wrote a paper on voter fraud, arguing that “regulations that prevent fraud are shown to actually increase the voter participation rate.” He is not otherwise known for work on elections or voting. Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist, noted in an email that the paper was not published in an academic journal and said that its findings were “not credible.”
Lott has nonetheless been invited to speak at Tuesday's meeting of President Trump's commission on voter fraud. There, he'll argue that elections officials should run prospective voters through the federal background check system, currently used for gun purchases, before allowing them to register to vote.
Why would such a system be useful in a voting context? Because it checks for criminal history as well as immigration status, according to Lott's presentation, which is posted to the election commission's website. This would allow authorities to “check if the right people are voting,” according to the presentation.
“Given all the many hundreds of statements that I [am] sure that you can find by Democrats and gun control advocates that the [federal background check] system checks do not 'in any way infringe' on people’s ability to have guns for self defense and given Republican concerns about vote fraud, it seemed like something that in theory could satisfy both sides for a topic where no common ground otherwise seems possible,” Lott said in an email.
The idea is “patently absurd,” according to Adam Winkler, a constitutional law specialist at UCLA. “Given the previous criticism of the background check system by John Lott, and the fact that the structure of voting regulation is entirely different than the regulation of guns, it's hard to believe this is a serious proposal.”
Asked whether political scientists generally view Lott as a credible voice in elections issues, Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School had a one-word answer: “No.” Speaking more broadly, Levitt said that the selection of panelists at Tuesday's commission meeting “seems to mirror the selection of commissioners — this is not the group you'd assemble if you were serious about real research into real solutions to real problems with the voting system.”
McDonald said, “I do not believe using the background check, which Lott opposes for gun buyers, is a serious proposal.” He added that “it does not speak well of the impartiality of the commission that the speakers with little knowledge in elections are asked to present in favor of a particular point of view.”
“Either this is just an effort to jag Democrats for supporting a background check system for guns when they wouldn't support one for voting,” Winkler said, “or it could be a sign that the election commission is planning to propose broad new federal legislation for determining eligibility for the right to vote.”
The Washington Post asked Lott whether he was putting forth a serious proposal on elections or whether he was really making a sly argument about gun background checks.
“Yes, I am serious,” Lott replied.