States in open rebellion after Donald Trump’s commission into election fraud requests voters’ private data
Critics believe the commission has been set up to justify Trump’s false claim that between 3 million and 5 million votes were cast illegally in last November’s election
An attempt by US President Donald Trump’s newly convened commission on election integrity to gather detailed information on the country’s voting population prompted a furious backlash on Friday, as at least 19 states either resisted the request on privacy protection grounds or flat-out rejected it as a back-door effort at mass voter suppression.
In a letter sent to the states on Thursday, the commission’s vice-chair, Kris Kobach, asked for comprehensive lists including names of voters, addresses, voting histories, party affiliation, criminal histories, military status and more. The letter did not spell out how the commission intended to use this information, but in an interview with the Kansas City Star newspaper, Kobach said he wanted to “quantify different forms of voter fraud and registration fraud and offer solutions”.
That set alarm bells ringing among election experts and voting rights activists who have followed Kobach’s career as elections chief in Kansas and seen him cite the risk of individual voter fraud – in reality, a negligible or non-existent problem – as an excuse to pass controversial laws making it harder for many lower-income and minority voters to cast a ballot.
Many of them believe the commission has been set up to justify Trump’s false claim – echoed by Kobach and by the commission’s chairman, vice-president Mike Pence – that between 3 million and 5 million votes were cast illegally in last November’s election.
California’s elections chief, Alex Padilla, said his state’s participation “would only serve to legitimise the false and already debunked claims of massive voter fraud”. He called the commission “a waste of taxpayer money and a distraction from the real threats to the integrity of our elections today: ageing voting systems and documented Russian interference in our elections”.
At least seven other states – Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Tennessee and Virginia – have issued similar refusals to cooperate.
“This entire commission is based on the specious and false notion that there was widespread voter fraud last November,” Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, said. “At best this commission was set up as a pretext to validate Donald Trump’s alternative election facts, and at worst is a tool to commit large-scale voter suppression.”
Another 11 states raised questions, in many cases because they are concerned their laws maintaining confidentiality and privacy could become moot once their lists were in the hands of the federal government. Bizarrely, even Kansas – with Kobach as elections chief – said it could not fully comply with the request, because state law did not permit release of even partial social security numbers.
Although the strongest opposition came from Democrats, the resistance to Kobach’s request crossed party lines. Many state-level Republicans such as Ohio secretary of state Jon Husted insisted they ran clean and fair elections and did not have issues with fraud.
Election experts do not dispute there is room for improvement in many aspects of the US electoral system, including the streamlining of its voter registration records. But they say this commission is blatantly partisan – Pence, Kobach, and the other vice-chair, Kenneth Blackwell, are all Republicans with track records of championing vote suppression mechanisms, and seemingly uninterested in adopting meaningful solutions to real problems.
“If they were serious about improving integrity in our elections, they would be talking about providing resources so our voting machines and voter registration databases are safe from hacking,” said Myrna Perez, director of the voting rights and elections project centre at New York University’s Brennan Centre. “They would be talking about an automatic voter registration system that was expansive and thoughtfully designed.”
Kobach has said he believes people vote twice “with alarming regularity”. As Kansas secretary of state, he runs the proprietary interstate Crosscheck Programme designed to catch double voters across 30 participating states. Academic studies, however, have described individual voter fraud as rarer than being struck by lightning. One study of the Crosscheck Programme found 200 false matches for every accurately identified instance of double voting.
Kobach’s letter raised further hackles because it gave states just over two weeks to respond and did not acknowledge the privacy and confidentiality issues in many state statute, much less address them. In at least one instance, the letter was addressed to the wrong state official, which critics took as another sign of overall sloppiness.
Charles Stewart, an election expert and political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called the letter “naive” about voter list matching.
“[It] isn’t a whole lot different from requests ... from graduate students and researchers just getting into the field,” he said.
Kobach is not the only commission member with a history of conducting questionable purges of the voter rolls. Hans von Spakovsky, a Georgia lawyer appointed to the commission just this week, was a critical player in a voter roll purge in Florida that preceded the hotly disputed 2000 presidential election. One county that conducted an audit found the purge list to be 95 per cent inaccurate and skewed heavily toward suppressing the black vote.
Spakovsky was also an early champion of voter ID laws – since introduced in many Republican-run states – which have also been shown to suppress the votes of minorities and the poor and give the Republicans an extra edge of up to three percentage points over the Democrats.
Kobach’s letter coincided with a separate request sent out by the justice department asking states to demonstrate their compliance with the voter purge aspects of a 1994 voter registration law. Many voting rights activists suspect Kobach is in favour of amending or scrapping the 1994 law, based on a document captured by a photographer last November when Kobach met then-president elect Trump at his New Jersey golf club. When a judge discovered that Kobach had denied the document’s existence in court filings, he fined Kobach US$1,000 and upbraided him for his “deceptive conduct and lack of candour”.
That context helps explain why one civil rights advocate, Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, denounced Kobach’s letter to the states as a “meritless inquisition” and a prelude to voter harassment and disenfranchisement. Russ Feingold, a former Democratic senator from Wisconsin, went even further.
“I would expect these actions from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or any of the other authoritarian regimes we have sanctioned around the world, regimes that stay in power by suppressing their people and manipulating election results,” he wrote in The Guardian. “We must not lie to ourselves when we see the warning signs here at home.”