Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and author of “The Fight To Vote”.
Amid the crisis precipitated by President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, the White House on Thursday announced the launch of a new investigative commission on election integrity. The commission won’t probe the real problem of Russian interference but an imaginary one: Trump’s claims of widespread illegal voting.
This news is both bizarre and alarming.
Bizarre, because the whole effort flowed from Trump’s insistence that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally in 2016. His pronouncements have been roundly mocked. Noncitizen voting is vanishingly rare. Overall, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter-impersonation fraud in the United States. Historians will note that this is the first commission, paid for with taxpayer money, that flows directly from a president’s overheated tweets.
The commission is alarming, too, because it gives every indication of being part of a more serious long-term drive to restrict voting. After all, Trump’s claims are a cartoon version of the fraud arguments often deployed to justify new voting laws. Charges of mythical misconduct can lead to very real restrictions on core democratic rights.
Start with the commission’s membership. Previous panels aimed for bipartisanship. A 2013 commission was chaired by Robert Bauer and Benjamin Ginsberg — the election lawyers for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, respectively. Former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James A. Baker III led the commission before that.
By contrast, this commission is led by two staunch Republicans. It is chaired by Vice President Pence. More telling is the choice of the vice chair: Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), an architect of restrictive voting and immigration laws around the country. Kobach cheered Trump’s claims, calling them “absolutely correct” and estimating that “3.2 million aliens voted in the presidential election.” He has pushed for laws to require that individuals show a birth certificate, passport or naturalization papers in order to register to vote — laws that could disenfranchise millions of eligible citizens and that have been blocked by courts.
Another commissioner, Ken Blackwell, a Republican who served as Ohio secretary of state in 2004 — and co-chair of the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign in the state. Among other things, Blackwell first insisted that voters could not register unless they did so on super-thick 80-pound card stock, preventing thousands from signing up. Thousands more waited for up to 10 hours to vote. Democrats howled, with a Democratic congressional task force concluding that in “many cases these irregularities were caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior” by Blackwell. He heatedly denied the Democrats’ charges.
The commission’s scope, too, should prompt worry. Early news reports said the panel would examine voter suppression and other practices that curb voting by eligible citizens. But by the time of the executive order and the White House press briefing, that balancing mission had vanished. It’s charged most specifically with finding “improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.”
Why now? Lurid fraud claims always are used to justify voting law restrictions. Already, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has pulled back from the challenge to the Texas voter-ID law, with more such moves likely elsewhere. But with this ramshackle panel, the push for restrictions may have gone too far. Since Trump began to claim “rigged” elections and millions of illegal voters, public support for the idea of widespread fraud actually has dropped. A recent Politico-Morning Consult poll showed that 43 percent believe fraud is very or somewhat common — down from 64 percent in a 2015 CBS News poll.
Much needs to be done to improve our elections and ensure voting rights. The voter-registration system often is a mess, rife with mistakes, while tens of millions of eligible voters are simply not on the rolls. The adoption of automatic voter registration across the country would solve many real problems. Encouragingly, last week the Illinois Senate unanimously backed a registration reform bill — a strong sign it will become law with bipartisan support. That would make it the ninth state, plus the District, to embrace automatic registration, from California and Oregon to West Virginia and Alaska.
But the president’s panel packed with partisans, on the hunt for evidence of a virtually nonexistent problem, won’t fix U.S. elections — and would only do more to undermine confidence in democracy.
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