The campaign to purge voter rolls
In November after the election, when Donald Trump tweeted that he would have won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”, it seemed like just another screw-loose outburst, from a narcissist who insists he has won everything no matter what nonsense it takes to make the case.
But three days after his inauguration, there it was again. He met with congressional leaders and spent the first 10 minutes to make the same claim, thathad 3 to 5 million illegal immigrants not cast ballots (all for Hillary Clinton, apparently), he would have taken the popular vote as well. The claim had become an embedded belief. Four days on, he promised a “major investigation” into voting irregularities designed to prove himself right.
Trump was spurred along by one Gregg Phillips, a “conservative activist” out of Texas, who claimed he had proof of the illegal votes, to be revealed “as soon as we get done with the checks”. Like the investigators Trump sent to Hawaii to forage in birth records to prove Barack Obama was born in Kenya who “cannot believe what they’re finding”, with nothing ever coming of that lie, nothing came of the Phillips vote count either. But
Trump intended to nevertheless use the U.S. government to prove the fantasy that he had created to tell himself in the mirror.
In May, he signed an executive order announcing the formation of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to “enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes” by weeding out “improper” or “fraudulent” registration and voting.
What’s wrong with that? Well, to begin with, you get to pay for it, not he. Second, multiple probes have found fraudulent voting to be next to non-existent, and “improper” counts obsolete registrations no one is using, as we’ll see. Third, while chaired by Vice President Pence, picked to do the work on the commission is Kris Kobach, who as Kansas secretary of state was the driving force behind the strictest voting laws in the country, perThe New York Times.
But the biggest concern is that Trump’s purge fits in nicely with the sweeping and multi-pronged Republican grand plan to keep off the voting rolls groups such as blacks, Latinos and students who tend to vote Democratic.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University keeps track of those restrictions and reports that bills have been filed in at least 27 state legislatures to increase document requirements for registering and to stiffen rules for voting. Almost all these states have combinations of Republican governors and control of legislatures. At least 16 states want to revise voter ID laws beyond those they’ve already changed. Fourteen states had new registration and voting restrictions in effect for last year’s election. All this atop Republican control of gerrymandering, brought about by their electoral triumphs in 2010 that coincided with the decennial census and handed them control over the redistricting that population shifts call for.
Herding as many as possible people with disapproved voting habits into as few districts as possible is one way to win the most congressional seats. The other strategy has been to enact rules to make voting difficult or costly for those groups. Make workers pay the cost of taking time off to get voter-IDs. Demand as identification birth certificates or passports as identification; a goodly percentage of blacks and Latinos don’t have these. That people have already proven their identity years ago in order to register doesn’t count. End registration on Sundays, long a tradition for blacks after church services. Disallow students from voting in their college towns, forcing them to return to their parental homes, or, more likely, not vote. End registration on the same day as voting, causing low-paid workers to take time off twice — or more likely, not vote. Close polling places in districts with high Democratic voter counts to discourage voting by making for long waits on long lines. Trim weeks off early voting.
We just described North Carolina, where all of these techniques were enacted after the Supreme Court found that federal oversight of certain states, mostly southern, was no longer necessary because after all these years since the Voting Rights Act was passed in the 1960s, they could be trusted.
But hindrance goes only so far. Now, the Trump commission will look for ways to disenfranchise undesirable groups altogether by voiding their registrations. The mission is to box out Democrats for good.
VOTE CASTING CALL
At the end of June out went a letter from Kobach’s commission to all 50 states calling for them to submit to Washington “publicly available voter roll data”. In accordance with each state’s laws, that could include full names of registered voters, their party registration, felony conviction records, a requested decade of each individual’s voting history, dates of birth, and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. What a fine idea, gathering all the nation’s voter data into a single repository. One virtue of the state system is that the data is split 50 ways. Promising easy access, the commission’s plan for consolidation will find enthusiastic support in the Kremlin.
The request provoked an uproar. July 4th patriotic fervor may have had something to do with it, but by the day after, 44 states had refused to comply in whole or part. Some imposed conditions; others demanded payment of fees. Some states’ laws prohibit release of information. Kobach’s own state prohibits the release of the Social Security data he has requested. Most states have laws that prohibit giving out voter birth dates without the voter’s permission.
Trump chastised the disobedient states on Twitter, questioning whether they were hiding something. Standing their ground as independent states and objecting to federal intrusion was not hiding something. States have jurisdiction over the voting process (witness gerrymandering) per the Constitution. The Justice Department can step in if fraud, corruption or other crimes are suspected and the locality refuses to investigate. None of that applies to the commission. Kentucky’s secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, said the premise for the commission — that voter fraud is pervasive and needs to be combatted — was the real fraud.
But Kobach is a zealot on the subject, which is why he got the job. He claimed widespread fraud in his home state of Kansas, but without proof. His dogged sleuthing to ferret out fraudulent voters there produced nine convictions out of 1.8 million registered in his state. Only one was an illegal immigrant. Most had voted in two states (which voter-ID would not have prevented, incidentally). The Kansas City Star — they called Kobach “the Javert of voter fraud” — pointed out that his quest for those nine was paired with registration restrictions that denied more than 18,000 Kansans their constitutional right to vote.
The reality is that Republicans have done a masterful job building a case that there is voter fraud abroad in the land when in fact it is imperceptible to the vanishing point.
Research shows voter fraud is minuscule, with an incident rate no higher than 0.0025%, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice. In 2016 there were just four documented cases of voter fraud out of 135 million votes cast. That’s even less — 0.000002%. His own lawyers contradicted Donald Trump’s allegations of illegal votes. In legal filings they maintained that the 2016 contest was “not tainted” as they sought to block recounts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The investigative journalism organization News21, associated with the University of Arizona, found only 2,068 incidents of alleged election fraud in the hundreds of millions of ballots cast in all U.S. elections between 2000 and 2012. A 2014 study by Loyola Law School in Los Angeles unearthed only 31 instances of voter impersonation among the more than 1 billion ballots cast in all U.S. elections since 2000.
Republicans muddy this picture by dwelling on the 2.8 million people who are registered to vote in more than one state, and the 1.8 million still on the voter rolls who are dead. People move, but who among them would cast their vote in one state, then drive or fly to the other to vote again? Apparently no one, considering the statistics just cited. And who are the people who comb the obituaries or somehow identify in the registration rolls those who are dead, and then go to the polls to impersonate them? Again, just about no one. And in state or national elections how many thousands would have to band together — undetected! — in order to have any effect on an election’s outcome?
Having created the perception of fraud, Republicans now argue that the perception of fraud is a far bigger problem than fraud itself. Americans no longer trust the electoral process. Something must be done. Registration laws must be tightened and voter rolls purged.
Virtually unreported is another prong on the attack against voting rights. On the same day as the letter asking for the voter rolls, out to all states from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department went a demand that each must “conduct a general program that makes a reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible voters from the statewide voter registration list” and submit an explanation of how they are going to go about their purge. That it is Justice making the demand suggests that the department will sue states that are laggard or don’t comply.
Florida tried a purge in 2000 when Jeb Bush was governor. A private company was paid to “cleanse” voter rolls. The result was full of mistakes. A 2012 repeat with governor Rick Scott as governor resulted in many legitimate voters being falsely flagged because they had the same names as people in the federal database. Scott scuttled the program and apologized.
The same is expected of the Justice and Kobach actions. Kobach has said he wants to match voter information against federal databases of foreign residents and undocumented immigrants to spot people who voted illegally. The Brennan Center says the federal databases are “notoriously flawed” and state records are likely to have their own inaccuracies. With fragmentary information and commonality of names, the system will mismatch, and wrong people in the many thousands will be flagged for removal.
But we won’t be told that. We will only hear the disturbingly high counts and why we must of course pass stricter laws to limit who can vote.
Kobach somehow knows that illegal registration of immigrants is “pervasive” across the nation. Which is to say he has decided before the fact what the results of his commission will be. So has the White House. In announcing the commission’s formation, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the group would produce a report for Mr. Trump next year on “system vulnerabilities that lead to improper registrations and voting”. That says it has already been decided that these conditions exist. After all, that is the purpose of the commission: To come up with statistics that point to a serious problem to justify an extensive “cleansing” from the voter rolls of people who — well that’s a surprise! — turn out to be from groups that tend to vote Democratic.
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