Sherrilyn Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller argued Sunday that President Trump was the victim of voter fraud in the election. “Voter fraud,” Miller insisted, “is a serious problem in this country.” This statement is untrue. He also said that “the White House has provided enormous evidence” of this fraud. This is also untrue.
The president himself has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims, from last week’s allegation that then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte lost her race in New Hampshire because thousands of voters were bused in from Massachusetts to his fact-free insistence that he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes because of 3 million to 5 million votes cast by “illegals.” And when he called for a “major investigation,” he was hardly opaque about his aims, with his press secretary, Sean Spicer, saying that the probe would be focused on “urban areas,” the same areas Trump told his supporters to “watch” on Election Day.
Let’s dispense with the easy part. This issue has been studied, and every credible academic review has concluded that widespread voter fraud does not happen in this country. There are isolated incidents, such as the Iowa woman accused of voting twice for Trump. But there is no evidence that millions, thousands or even hundreds of instances of in-person voter fraud occur in the United States. One of the most reliable studies found only 31 instances of fraud in more than 1 billion votes cast over nearly 15 years. A person is more likely to be struck by lightning than commit voter fraud.
Although “voter fraud” has long been on the list of myths perpetuated by state-level Republican leaders to justify onerous voter ID laws, even Republican members of Congress have refused to endorse the president’s views about widespread voter fraud. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said that no federal dollars should be used to support the president’s search for voter fraud. Ayotte rejected Trump’s account of her defeat.
Thus, the president and his team’s peculiar repetition of claims about voter fraud must be recognized for what it is: They are laying the groundwork for forthcoming efforts. We should prepare for the president to issue a sweeping executive order requiring a nationwide investigation of alleged voter fraud. The justification for it will be as unmoored from facts, as was the basis for the seven Muslim-majority countries selected for the president’s travel ban. And the results will be just as, if not more, pernicious.
A presidential command to investigate the existence of a phenomenon that has been demonstrated not to exist can accomplish only one thing — a nationwide system of voter intimidation authorized at the highest levels of government. The president and his team have already made clear that they will not let facts get in the way of their firm conviction that voter fraud exists. Whatever body is charged with the investigation will be certain to concoct “evidence” of voter fraud; the administration would not take the risk of launching an investigation unless it could be certain that it would corroborate the president’s fantasy. Along the way, any commission will be charged with aggressively probing the actions of state and local voting officials — and voters — in its zeal to find what study after study has been unable to find.
All of this is especially alarming now that Jeff Sessions is leading the Justice Department. When Sessions was U.S. attorney in Alabama, he used the power of his office to investigate and unsuccessfully prosecute civil rights leaders for unsubstantiated voter fraud. In the black community, this generated fear about exercising the franchise that lasted decades. The results of such an investigation on a national scale could be even more devastating.
Of course, there is a serious illegal voting problem in our country: voter suppression. But even that does not require an “investigation.” Federal courts have ruled that voter ID laws in North Carolina and Texas, respectively, illegally suppress the votes of African Americans and Latinos. In North Carolina, the U.S Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit found that state had intentionally designed its law to discriminate against minority voters.
The comparison of voter suppression to voter fraud is stark. Although Texas has found only a handful of cases of in-person voter fraud since 2000, it is estimated that 600,000 eligible voters were disenfranchised by the 2013 adoption of Texas’s strict voter ID law. Rather than address this travesty, the president has chosen to reinforce the myth that minorities — “urban” voters and “illegals” — are a threat to the integrity of our election system. Trump’s insistence on investigating a nonexistent threat while ignoring the reality of systematic disenfranchisement of minority voters speaks powerfully about the intentions and focus of this administration.
We take the president at his word when he threatens to launch a “major investigation” into voter fraud. We will challenge any illegality in the presentation or execution of the program. But we had all best recognize the implications of the president of the United States launching a nationwide voter intimidation program.