Michael Waldman: The voter fraud hoax isn’t funny

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 6, 2018

By Michael Waldman

Special to the Washington Post

On Wednesday night, President Donald Trump abruptly announced he was disbanding his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. This was the panel charged with finding proof of Trump’s absurd claim of millions of illegal voters, and it went downhill from the beginning. But while the panel has vanished, its spurious arguments remain widespread. Claims of voter fraud still form the basis of efforts to suppress the vote across the country. Now can we call a stop to that effort, too?

First, let’s marvel at the curious story of the commission. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump warned supporters, “The election is going to be rigged.” Then as president-elect, he tweeted, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He told startled members of Congress that 3 million to 5 million had cast illegal ballots.

This was widely recognized as false. Statistically, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit in-person voter fraud. Law enforcement officials, election administrators from both parties and scholars all agree voter fraud is incredibly rare.

Challenged to back up his spurious claim, Trump launched the voting commission. In contrast with similar earlier panels, which strove for bipartisanship, this one was chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and guided by vice chairman Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas, both Republicans. The panel was crammed with members, including Kobach, well known for spurious warnings of fraud.

Immediately the panel began to flail. It first asked states to provide voters’ individual data, including the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, illegal under the laws of many states. Twenty-one states declined to provide any data, citing legal restrictions, privacy concerns and uncertainty about how the information would be used.

Things only got worse. Voting rights groups, including the Brennan Center for Justice, which I lead, pelted the panel with lawsuits. Ahead of a session in New Hampshire, Kobach claimed voter fraud there because voters used out-of-state driver’s licenses as IDs. In fact, many were likely college students voting legally. By November, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a commissioner, actually sued his own panel for violating open government rules and cutting him out of the flow of information. Perhaps the White House’s announcement was an act of mercy.

It’s tempting to shake our heads and move on. But the ideas that undergirded the commission in the first place, unfortunately, still have malevolent potency.

Bogus claims of misconduct remain a campaign-trail staple. Roy Moore claimed voter fraud in refusing to accept his defeat in the recent U.S. Senate race in Alabama, filing a suit that was quickly tossed out of court. Cynical voters are prone to credit allegations. After the 2016 election, one poll found that 62 percent of Trump voters believed his claims.

Worse, states across the country still have laws that make it harder to vote specifically due to the supposed specter of voter fraud. In Wisconsin, the best recent study suggested that as many as 23,000 eligible voters could have been blocked by a harsh ID law that purported to deter fraud.

Next Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear a case challenging Ohio’s practice of purging voters from the rolls who have not cast ballots in federal elections. One proffered rationale: to prevent fraud. The result, however, is to block many eligible citizens who simply choose not to vote. Watchdogs worry that improper purges will be the method of choice to prune minority, poor and Democratic voters from the rolls, often without the highly visible controversy that attends state legislative action.

The panel’s overreaching may have had an unexpected positive consequence, though: State officials of both parties roundly denounced its premise.

That’s good, because real problems mar the way we run elections in the United States, and those problems will need bipartisan solutions. Voter registration lists are, in fact, often rife with duplication and error, even as they omit tens of millions of eligible citizens.

Happily, even amid partisan wrangling over voting, states have moved to enact “automatic registration.” In nine states and the District, the government will automatically register voters (unless they choose to opt out) when they interact with the departments of motor vehicles or (in some cases) other agencies. Most recently, such a measure passed the Illinois legislature unanimously and was signed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Automatic registration adds citizens to the rolls, costs less and bolsters election security.

We also cannot forget Russia’s attempts to threaten the integrity of our elections. We now know that Moscow’s interference in 2016 went well beyond stealing campaign emails. Hackers probed state databases and voting-machine software companies. There’s no evidence that they switched tallies, but there’s every reason to think Russia — or China, or North Korea, or a homegrown partisan — will be back in 2018. A bipartisan group of senators just introduced a bill to help states buy new secure machines and harden their systems from attack.

Yes, Trump’s commission began as a tragedy and ended as a farce. But the “voter fraud” hoax really is not funny. The next federal effort should find ways to protect the right to vote, not spread scare stories.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, is the author of “The Fight to Vote.”