One of democracy’s best protections against blatantly preposterous proposals is that the perpetrators inevitably go too far. In the case of President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission, that didn’t take long.
Even before next week’s first official meeting, the panel Trump created to pursue his ridiculous claim that 3 million to 5 million Americans voted fraudulently last November, is running into roadblocks both federal and state.
On Monday, it temporarily suspended its request for reams of public and personal election data in the wake of multiple federal court suits from liberal groups contending it has failed to protect voters’ privacy.
But the principal resistance has come from the nation’s secretaries of state, many of them Republicans.
They have the most experience running elections, and they’re making clear their opposition to this misguided federal threat to their authority. On Monday they unanimously passed a resolution at their annual meeting stressing the states’ role in administering federal, state and local elections.
The bipartisan rebuke came after many responded individually to the panel’s request by echoing Mississippi GOP Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s rejoinder that the panel chaired by Vice President Mike Pence “can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from.”
Requested data included registrants’ full names, addresses, birth dates, political parties, voting history since 2006, felony convictions, military status and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.
Though Pence officially chairs the panel, its driving force is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, no stranger to controversy over his loud but so far ineffectual campaign to verify unproven claims of widespread voting by people who are in the U.S. illegally.
Kobach has fared poorly in court. Last month, a federal magistrate fined him $1,000 for misleading the court while challenging the Kansas law requiring new voters to show proof of citizenship, a requirement Kobach would like to see elsewhere.
The panel has given no indication yet how it proposes to cope with the non-existent problem it is investigating. Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California Irvine and one of the nation’s top elections experts, wrote in Slate he thinks it wants to roll back the 1993 Motor Voter Law, which requires states to offer the opportunity to register to anyone applying for a driver’s license or public assistance.
Besides Kobach, Hasen noted, the panel includes “a rogue’s gallery of the country’s worst voter suppressors,” including Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who sought in 2004 to reject voters on various specious grounds; Hans von Spakovsky, a former Bush 43 Justice Department official who has long argued without proof that widespread fraud requires a crackdown; and its newest member, J. Christian Adams, a von Spakowsky colleague in the Bush Justice Department.
In focusing on registration, the Pence-Kobach Commission is targeting the biggest current problem, the likely presence on voter rolls of many people who died or moved. But critics note that efforts in many states to purge their rolls often remove legitimate voters, including many minorities.
Besides, regardless of who is registered, there is no evidence of wide-scale illegal voting. A few cases often crop up, like a Dallas-area woman recently convicted of voting for years though not a citizen, and a Des Moines, Iowa, woman caught trying to vote twice last year for Trump. Organized efforts have generally produced minimal results, like Ohio Secretary of State John Husted’s probe last year that recommended prosecuting 52 possible voter fraud cases among the state’s 5.6 million voters.
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are again pushing legislation automatically registering anyone who applies for a driver’s license, public assistance or a firearms permit; enrolls at a public university; or becomes a naturalized citizen. Five states have adopted similar measures.
And the Democratic National Committee created its own commission, chaired by former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who also formed a political action committee to fight restrictive efforts. Kander’s group plans a news conference next week when the Pence-Kobach panel meets.
As is often the case in Washington, the issue has created some interesting political subtexts. Kobach is running for governor of Kansas. Kander, who narrowly lost a 2016 Senate race, is using the issue to pursue the kind of schedule presidential hopefuls follow.
But the underlying contrast is pretty clear-cut. The Pence-Kobach Commission is trolling for ways to justify making voting harder, like expanding the voter ID laws in many states or extending Kansas’ questionable citizenship requirement.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News and a frequent columnist. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.