Wendy R. Weiser directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Even before the microphones are turned on, the White House’s new voter fraud commission has already done significant damage to American democracy.
By now, most are familiar with the slapstick launch of this so-called bipartisan group, which is set to have its first meeting Wednesday. It was announced in a hurry — two days after the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey — before half its members were selected. It’s led by two Republicans and stacked with some of the nation’s most notorious promoters of vote suppression. Prime among them is its vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), whose ill-conceived and ill-executed request for state voter data remains a debacle.
Given the commission’s fiasco-filled first weeks, it’s easy to dismiss it as a joke. That would be a mistake. The panel is already having a big impact, and it is in no way benign.
Much of the damage so far flows from Kobach’s data request, which has overwhelmed election offices and forced them to spend an inordinate amount of time, money and energy dealing with the commission instead of doing their jobs. State officials have had to compile detailed responses to the letter, engage lawyers to make sure they don’t run afoul of state laws and mobilize to reassure citizens that their personal data will be safe. One state official told the Brennan Center for Justice that his office has spent 50 percent of its time in recent weeks responding to calls from concerned constituents.
The request faces no fewer than 10 legal challenges over multiple alleged infractions. Already one commissioner has resigned. And last week, in publishing the first set of public comments, the White House publicly released the addresses and phone numbers of individuals who expressed concern over the privacy of their data.
The farce is also wasting federal resources. Taxpayers will spend at least half a million dollars on the commission, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in February that no federal funds should go toward any examination of voter fraud.
Even more disturbing, the commission has already accomplished one of the main goals critics accuse it of harboring: making people less likely to vote.
Election administrators across the country are reporting that, in response to Kobach’s request, voters are asking to be removed from the rolls. The director of elections in Denver said her office has seen more than a 2,000 percent increase in voter registration withdrawals. And the Seminole County, Fla., supervisor of elections — a Republican — said that in his 12 years in office, he has never had to talk so many people out of giving up their right to vote, telling them: “Please don’t let an action or policy you disagree with have the effect of silencing your most powerful tool to change or affirm it: your vote.”
Kobach offered a callous, evidence-free response: Those who withdrew their registration could be “people who are not qualified to vote” or “someone who is not a U.S. citizen saying, ‘I’m withdrawing my voter registration because I’m not able to vote.’ ”
The commission’s threat to publicize private voter information previously protected by the states has naturally caused anxiety and has deeply shaken confidence in election administration. As has its unprecedented effort to assemble a national voter registry at the White House.
The commission plans to match the voter lists it receives from states against other federal databases, such as those used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, supposedly to identify ineligible voters on the rolls. This threatens to further undermine confidence. Experts believe that any list matches using data the commission is seeking would significantly inflate the amount of improper voting, and findings could allow the commission to falsely claim it has identified widespread fraud.
The effort has thinly veiled ends: to justify President Trump’s absurd claim that he lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal voters and to lay the groundwork for laws that dramatically restrict access to voting, including through strict voter-ID requirements and obstacles to voter registration such as requiring documentary proof of citizenship.
The agenda is pre-baked. According to emails made public last week, Kobach told Trump’s transition team in November that he is “putting together . . . legislation drafts for submission to Congress” and that he had started drafting amendments to the National Voter Registration Act “to make clear that proof of citizenship requirements are permitted.”
Every minute local officials spend dealing with this sham is time they cannot focus on pressing problems, such as the need to shore up our systems against foreign actors attempting to interfere in our elections, especially Russia.
And yet, Kobach and crew haven’t even gotten started. We should not underestimate the further damage they can do to the public’s confidence in our election system. It’s up to us to ensure this farce doesn’t turn into a tragedy.
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