What is the 'Election Integrity' commission?
On May 11, President Trump signed an executive order creating the “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.” Vice President Pence chairs the Commission with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a notorious advocate of voter suppression laws. Members include other arch voting rights foes: Hans von Spakovsky and Ken Blackwell. Even before the Commission’s first meeting, Kobach sent letters to all 50 states and the District of Columbia asking for detailed records on every voter in their state. By July 5, at least 44 states had declared that they would not, or could not by law, provide the Commission with all the information requested.
Why is there an election commission?
President Donald Trump apparently cannot accept the fact that he lost the popular vote by more than three million votes. He has claimed that millions of “illegal” votes are responsible for Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory. This is a ridiculous claim. Studies have repeatedly found that there is virtually no individual voter fraud in the U.S. But false claims about fraud have been used as justification for a wave of voter suppression laws passed by Republicans since Barack Obama was elected president, building on a concerted push during the George W. Bush administration.
When President Trump announced his intention to create this Commission, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights warned, “The President has frequently asserted a claim of widespread voter fraud but offered no evidence in support of it; nor has any credible source offered any evidentiary support for it. Creating a special commission in these circumstances is misleading and an unnecessary diversion of resources.”
This commission is designed to give Republican lawmakers cover for imposing voting rules that predominantly keep vulnerable communities like people of color and younger voters from voting—laws that some Republican officials have admitted are designed to help Republicans win elections. A federal court found that North Carolina’s voter ID law was designed to target African American voters “with almost surgical precision.” Even a conservative federal appeals court found that a restrictive Texas voter ID law discriminated against and disenfranchised minority voters.
“This commission has been, from the beginning, an effort to sell Trump’s lie that he won the popular vote,” says Dale Ho of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “Kobach’s echoed that sentiment himself on camera. Now they’ve set up this commission that’s going to create phony findings to support that lie.”
The stated vs. real purposes of the Commission
The stated purpose of the Commission is “to promote fair and honest Federal elections” by evaluating laws and policies that either enhance or undermine public confidence in federal elections and identifying “vulnerabilities” that could lead to fraudulent registrations and voting.
The real reason for the Commission is to manufacture a justification for laws and voting rules and practices that make it harder for some Americans to cast a ballot. Kobach’s request for voting data from all 50 states is most likely an effort to implement a national version of his controversial “Crosscheck” program, which is supposed to compare voting rolls to identify people wrongly registered in more than one place, but which in practice has been a “highly inaccurate” device that improperly flags many voters for potential purging from the voter rolls. Inaccurate data identifying large numbers of voters as fraudulent is then used by conservative media and politicians to demand more restrictive voter ID laws. Some studies have found that purges, like voter ID laws, predominantly target people of color. Several states have stopped using Crosscheck because, as the Oregon Secretary of State’s office says, “the data we received was unreliable.”
Who’s on the Commission?
Among the members of the Commission are people with a long record of supporting restrictive voting laws and procedures, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, and the Family Research Council’s Ken Blackwell.
Voting rights expert Ari Berman recently concluded, “With the likes of Kobach and von Spakovsky on it, Trump’s commission has nothing to do with election integrity and everything to do with suppressing votes ahead of the 2018 and 2020 elections.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is a far-right activist who has led a nationwide push for restrictive voting laws. A June 2017 New York Times profile by Berman says Kobach’s plans “represent a radical reordering of American priorities” that could “help preserve Republican majorities” but also “reduce the size and influence of the country’s nonwhite population.”
Kobach is also a driving force behind anti-immigrant legislation and so-called “anti-Sharia” laws that demonize American Muslims. Kobach has pushed for right-wing policies to be included in Republican Party platforms, including Trump’s border wall.
Kobach is a master of inflammatory rhetoric, telling radio listeners in 2015 that it would not be a “huge jump” to think Obama would ban criminal prosecutions of black people. In 2014 he suggested that a breakdown in the rule of law under a Hispanic majority in the U.S. could lead to “ethnic cleansing” of white people.
Kobach’s Crosscheck program has been so inaccurate in identifying fraudulent voters that several states stopped using the program. Researchers examining Crosscheck data sent to Iowa officials before the 2012 and 2014 elections found that “200 legitimate voters may be impeded from voting for every double vote stopped.”
Courts repeatedly found that Kobach’s SAFE Act, which imposed a strict “proof of citizenship” requirement on potential voters and blocked the voter registrations of tens of thousands of Kansans, was violating the law.
This June, a federal magistrate fined Kobach $1,000 “for presenting misleading arguments in a voting-related lawsuit.”
Hans von Spakovsky
Hans von Spakovsky, who currently works for the conservative Heritage Foundation, is another right-wing activist who perpetuates the false voter fraud myth. Like Kobach, he uses inflammatory partisan rhetoric, charging last year that President Obama wanted noncitizens to vote illegally.
During the Bush administration, von Spakovsky worked at the Justice Department where, in the words of six former lawyers in the voting section, he became “the point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division’s mandate to protect voting rights.” At DOJ he redirected voting rights efforts toward combating supposed fraud, something that led then-senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama to oppose his nomination to the Federal Election Commission.
In 2011, he falsely claimed that a 2010 election in Missouri had been decided by 50 voters that were illegally cast by citizens of Somalia; a court found that there was not a single fraudulent vote by Somali Americans.
Back in 2007, Right Wing Watch noted, “Spakovsky gained his experience in voting law by engineering the purging from voter rolls of supposed felons; indeed, he was a board member of a group involved in the 2000 purge in Florida that disenfranchised thousands of legit voters.”
Another member of the Commission is former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who became notorious for efforts to hinder minority voter registration to help Bush win re-election in 2004—he tried to reject all voter registration forms not printed on 80-pound paper—and he was still at it in 2006—trying to impede registration drives by requiring anyone signing up voters to turn in the forms in-person to the board of elections or Secretary of State’s office. The Brennan Center for Justice has said that during his time in Ohio Blackwell “became notorious for partisan conflicts, attempts to restrict access to the ballot, and chaotic election administration.” The Brennan Center also notes, “He was also one of the very few current or former election officials to echo President Trump’s false allegation of widespread illegal voting in the 2016 election.”
Blackwell is another all-around right-wing activist, promoting anti-gay policies as a senior fellow for the Family Research Council and serving up inflammatory rhetoric about gun control on the board of the National Rifle Association. (Blackwell, for example, called President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court “a declaration of war against America’s gun owners and the Second Amendment to our Constitution.”) He’s also on the board of the Club for Growth, and Trump tapped Blackwell for his transition team. In March 2017, Blackwell announced that he was forming Defend US, a super PAC focused on electing conservative candidates in Ohio at all levels.
The Modern Day Voter Suppression Movement
There is a long and ugly history of voter suppression in the United States, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and violent intimidation against voters and voter registration efforts. With the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (“motor voter”) the federal government was empowered to safeguard individuals’ ability to exercise their right to vote.
After record turnout by people of color and young voters helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008, right-wing activists amped up their push for more restrictive voting laws. Conservative victories in the 2010 Tea Party wave gave Republicans the power in many states to start putting those laws into place.
In June 2013, the conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court gutted key protections of the federal Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act—the portion of the law requiring states with a history of voter disenfranchisement to get Justice Department approval before making changes to voting procedures—was no longer necessary because “our country has changed.”
Almost immediately, state Republican officials began proving him wrong. Within two hours of the decision, Texas announced that its voter ID law, which had been blocked by a federal court, would be put into effect. In less than a year, eight of the states that had been fully or partially covered by the Voting Rights Act passed or implemented new voting restrictions, as did three states that were not. Some engaged in various forms of voter purges. And local officials in those states could more easily—and did—implement their own discriminatory changes, such as closing voter registration offices or moving them to neighborhoods without access to public transportation.
A 2014 study by the Government Accountability Office “found that strict voter-ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout by 2 percent, enough to swing a close election, with the largest drop-off among newly registered voters, young voters, and voters of color.”
Vanessa Williams at the Brookings Institution wrote last November, “The persistence of voter suppression in the 21st Century represents a step backwards, another failure to overcome America’s long history of racist disenfranchisement.”
The Toll of Voter Suppression in 2016
Jeffrey Toobin, a legal analyst for the New Yorker, called Republican voter suppression “the real voting scandal of 2016.” Problems included changes in the number and accessibility of voting locations as well as restrictive voter ID laws. Fourteen states had new voting restrictions in effect for the first time in 2016, some of which had a major impact on voter turnout.
In Wisconsin, for example, 300,000 registered voters lacked the forms of ID required under the restrictive voter law passed in 2014; voter turnout in 2016 was the lowest level in two decades. A study released this May found that Wisconsin’s voter ID law reduced turnout by 200,000 votes; the presidential race in Wisconsin was decided by 22,748 votes.
A Priorities USA study released in May found that in states without changes to voter ID law, turnout increased an average of 1.3 percent between 2012 and 2016. But in states with strict new ID laws, turnout decreased by 1.7 percent. Commenting on the study, voting rights expert Ari Berman noted in The Nation that “In Mississippi, Virginia, and Wisconsin, strict voter-ID laws had an especially pronounced negative impact on African-American voters.”
In North Carolina in 2016 there were “158 fewer polling places in 40 counties with large black communities, and African American voter participation was down 16 percent,” according to the Center for American Progress. On Election Day, “there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voting discrimination, like Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina,” wrote Berman, noting that hundreds of thousands of voters were impacted by those changes.
Some new state restrictions were challenged by courts in 2016. For example, a federal judge found that the Texas voter ID law could keep 600,000 minority and young Texans away from the polls. (In Texas, gun licenses count as ID’s to vote, but student ID’s do not.) A federal appeals court ruled that Ohio’s aggressive purging of voting rolls—which removed about 2 million names from voting rolls in recent years—was illegal.
Right-wing pressure to further restrict voting access is not letting up. In 2016 Missouri lawmakers passed, and voters approved, a constitutional amendment that the Secretary of State’s office had estimated in 2014 could disenfranchise 220,000 people. The Brennan Center reported in May that at least 99 bills to restrict access to registration and voting had been introduced in 31 states in 2017.