Ladies and gentlemen, President Donald Trump is very concerned about the integrity of the results of our elections. Very, very concerned. In fact, President Trump is so concerned about rooting out voter fraud that he created a special election commission devoted to this purpose, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and vice-chaired by Kris Kobach, Kansas’s Secretary of State. In its letter to the Secretaries of State of all 50 states, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity reportedly asks for names, addresses, birth dates, and party affiliations of all registered voters, as well as felony convictions, military statuses, the last four digits of Social Security numbers, and voting records dating back as far as 10 years ago. It’s a lot of information that’s being requested, and potentially sensitive information, at that. This explains why roughly 9 out of 10 responding states have told Trump and his commission, in a manner of speaking, to go screw. In fact, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a fellow Republican, had this to say of the Commission’s inquest: “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from.” Ending on a preposition notwithstanding, these are tough words, and quite the negative response irrespective of party affiliation of the government official.
Often, proposed policies and ideological stances will be euphemistically titled or otherwise surreptitiously structured so that the superficial idea seems appealing or plausible when the underlying intent of the shift is of ill intent. “Right to work” legislation has awful implications for unions and other forms of organized labor, but having more rights is better, no? The concept of school choice is patently destructive to public schools and only helps to further divisions based on race and socioeconomic status in our country, but choice is a good thing, right? The aims of the Presidential Advisory Commission, meanwhile, even on their surface do not pass the smell test. Since scoring his upset electoral victory in November, Donald Trump has consistently invoked claims of voter fraud as the reason he, too, lost the popular vote. Millions of “illegals” aiding Hillary’s cause! Rampant, widespread fraud! California, a hotbed of electoral impropriety! Except that exactly as much as Trump and members of the alt-right have advanced conspiracy theories to this effect, actual reputable sources have consistently refuted them. Time and time again. Despite it seeming almost silly now, it must be emphasized and re-emphasized that there is no credible, verifiable evidence for Trump’s claims. They are as hollow as those of his absurd and hateful birther claims levied against Barack Obama. And yet, his cadre of supporters holds on to notions like these in the face of any and all disconfirming proof. It fits the narrative they wish so desperately to believe.
Hence why all but a handful of states have pledged to refuse the Commission’s request, at least in part. Whether based on the illegitimacy of Pres. Trump’s claims, the sensitivity of the information involved (especially SSNs, political party affiliations, and birth dates), or both, a number of Secretaries of State charged with responding to the electoral commission’s supposed fact-finding mission have rejected what they consider to be a rather flagrant example of government overreach and violation of privacy. Now, on one hand, some might construe this widespread antipathy to the work of Kris Kobach and Company as unreasonable and hiding an ulterior motive. And by “some,” I mean essentially just Donald Trump, who took to—you guessed it—Twitter to cast his aspersions, suggesting those states who won’t play ball with his “very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL” might be hiding something. Right. 40+ states are conspiring to hide pervasive, unsubstantiated fraud all for the purpose of? Making the President look bad? Does everyone have an ax to grind against Donald Trump? Even those led by Republicans? As with Trump’s attacks on the media and shameless reposting of Photoshopped GIFs depicting himself landing wrestling moves on a fighter with a CNN head, this kind of rhetoric and inflammatory imagery would be worthy of mockery but for his stature and the tone it sets for elevating him as a cult figure above time-honored American institutions. Unsubstantiated as his claims are, Trump and his level of discourse are yet dangerous.
Going back to the idea of policy as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and while there is little to redeem the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity even on its face, as with other better-constructed parts of a broadly-stated conservative agenda, there are more sinister applications to this push for “voting integrity.” As Bridgette Dunlap, writing for Rolling Stone, explains, the Commission is really about voter suppression, and we need look no further than the figure at the center of this whole operation. From Dunlap’s piece:
Trump’s commission is led by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who’s now running for governor. Kobach is the legal mind behind a slew of anti-immigrant and anti-voter laws implemented across the country, many of which have been struck down by courts. He’s been called “the king of voter suppression” by the ACLU and “the most racist politician in America” by Kansas’ Senate minority leader. Kobach was such a dedicated birther that he demanded even more information after Obama released his birth certificate before placing him on the Kansas ballot. He was recently fined by a federal court in a case challenging his state’s voter restrictions for making “patently misleading representations to the court” regarding a memo he provided to Trump about such restrictions.
More racist than even Steve King, Representative from the state of Iowa? That’s pretty racist! OK, OK—even if the source of that comment was speaking in hyperbole, Kobach’s is the kind of history which fails to inspire confidence in his ability to ensure election integrity. In fact, given his track record, “integrity” is not a word that should enter one’s vocabulary, regardless of the context. Like any number of Pres. Trump’s appointees, Kris Kobach appears to have been selected specifically to undermine the office or function he was tapped to represent. Forget for the moment the request for personal identifying information may be illegal on numerous counts—as Dunlap details, it probably violates both the Privacy Act and the Paperwork Reduction Act, and has already been challenged in court by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). Bridgette Dunlap notes how Kobach has been a vocal supporter of the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which is designed to weed out fraud by comparing voter registrations in different states and eliminating duplicates based on name and birth date. Sounds great, right? Except that it produces scores of false positives from different people who possess common names and therefore easily may share both a name and a birth date, or seeks to assign intent to defraud when the same person is registered in two different states and he or she may simply have moved. This is the kind of faulty system that Kris Kobach champions, one that nullifies voters who are legitimately registered for the privilege. As Dunlap alleges, Kobach knows this full well, and is charged with facilitating the completion of a database that serves to “produce junk analysis to support [his] claims that people are voting in multiple states and noncitizens are voting in large numbers.” The concept of pervasive voter fraud is a gigantic red herring, but again, it feeds into the story that undocumented immigrants are not only taking our jobs, but stealing our elections as well. Quite the sleight of hand from the election officials who are truly pulling the strings, no?
Bridgette Dunlap leaves us with some reasons for optimism, albeit a cautious brand of optimism, at the end of her article. Her closing remarks:
The U.S. has an ugly history of racially discriminatory voting laws. Trump and Kobach have made it impossible for anyone who cares about empirical evidence to deny this is the latest chapter. But whether state Republican officials will continue to protect voters in defiance of Trump, or join him in winning elections by any means necessary, remains to be seen.
What Dunlap seems to be saying is that Donald Trump and Kris Kobach have done and said enough that it should be objectively clear that their election commission, of flimsy standing to begin with, is even less meritorious than stated and designed specifically to disenfranchise voters from minority groups. The key word here is should. More and more, members of the GOP and conservatives appear to be more than just amenable to arguments that show a disdain for facts—in fact, they look to be embracing such a mentality (before we get ahead of ourselves here, Democratic supporters also increasingly seem to be falling prey to fake news and judgments based on opinions, not verifiable facts). So, how exactly has this prevailing trend within the Republican Party manifested itself with specific respect to voting rights? Greg Palast, in another piece which appeared in Rolling Stone, addresses what he calls the “GOP’s stealth war against voters.” The aforementioned Crosscheck Program appears front and center in Palast’s analysis, and a key passage in his article governs the purging of voter records predominately among non-whites.
We had Mark Swedlund, a database expert whose clients include eBay and American Express, look at the data from Georgia and Virginia, and he was shocked by Crosscheck’s “childish methodology.” He added, “God forbid your name is Garcia, of which there are 858,000 in the U.S., and your first name is Joseph or Jose. You’re probably suspected of voting in 27 states.”
Swedlund’s statistical analysis found that African-American, Latino and Asian names predominate, a simple result of the Crosscheck matching process, which spews out little more than a bunch of common names. No surprise: The U.S. Census data shows that minorities are overrepresented in 85 of 100 of the most common last names. If your name is Washington, there’s an 89 percent chance you’re African-American. If your last name is Hernandez, there’s a 94 percent chance you’re Hispanic. If your name is Kim, there’s a 95 percent chance you’re Asian.
This inherent bias results in an astonishing one in six Hispanics, one in seven Asian-Americans and one in nine African-Americans in Crosscheck states landing on the list. Was the program designed to target voters of color? “I’m a data guy,” Swedlund says. “I can’t tell you what the intent was. I can only tell you what the outcome is. And the outcome is discriminatory against minorities.”
Now, does this correlation prove causation? Well, no, correlation never does, and furthermore, can produce false positives. For the sake of a classical example, ice cream sales and violent crime are strongly positively correlated—not because the ne’er-do-wells among us have a sweet tooth, mind you—but because both ice cream sales and violent crime become more frequent when it’s hot out. This is to say that there is a confounding variable. Still, even if we can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Crosscheck Program is blatantly discriminatory, that its performance in producing arrests is so poor in spite of allegations of widespread malfeasance is reason enough to put the program into question. Of course, another way to look at this matter is to say that Crosscheck is doing a fine job of deterring fraud. It’s a stupid way to look at it, but it’s another way. You can’t prevent rampant fraud when it doesn’t exist in the first place.
So, voter suppression methods like the Crosscheck Program don’t actually root out voter fraud. Furthermore, they produce results which serve to discriminate against minorities of all makes and models. Beyond the wastefulness and the unfairness of this all, is there a yet larger significance? You bet your patootie, there is! Let’s check in with our friend Greg Palast again, and review a piece he penned immediately after the 2016 election. You see, Palast is an investigative journalist, and through his analysis of Donald Trump’s margins of victory in key battleground states such as Arizona, Michigan, and North Carolina alongside the figures of purged voting records from each of these jurisdictions, he concluded—not merely to be grandiose or inflammatory—that the Republican Party and Trump’s operatives helped steal the election. Chief among those operatives is none other than—you guessed it—Kris Kobach, and Crosscheck is also waiting in the weeds. Moreover, as Palast details, this voter suppression explains in large part why exit polls on the day of the election could have been so poorly predictive of the actual results. As he instructs, exit polls can only assess who voted for whom. They can’t, meanwhile, know whose vote was counted and whose vote was not. Indeed, Greg Palast asserts that based on the evidence, it was Jim Crow, not the voters, who elected Trump. He sums up his thoughts nicely with the following:
This country is violently divided, but in the end, there simply aren’t enough white guys to elect Trump nor a Republican Senate. The only way they could win was to eliminate the votes of non-white guys—and they did so by tossing Black provisional ballots into the dumpster, ID laws that turn away students—the list goes on. It’s a web of complex obstacles to voting by citizens of color topped by that lying spider, Crosscheck.
In short, the fix was in. Granted, this doesn’t excuse the poor strategy employed by Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and the Democratic National Committee, nor does it exculpate the Democratic Party of its larger structural flaws re its losses in congressional races, but it certainly adds context. And it provides a point of focus for political activists across the political spectrum in the critical area of election reform. Because when elections are stolen, we all lose.
Assuming Greg Palast’s analysis is correct—and I have no reason to doubt it, mind you—and given what we know of Donald Trump, Kris Kobach, and the Republican Party, the considerations within this piece are markedly frustrating. Trump is a fraud masquerading as a legitimate President—who, backed by Kobach, is pushing a voter suppression agenda masquerading as a legitimate operation to deter and eliminate fraud. The layers of illegitimacy are both astounding and aggravating. Cue the #NotMyPresident and #NotMyCommission hashtags. What makes the very existence of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity all the more irksome is that while some of us who are just average citizens and not even all that well versed in the subject of voting rights get that this operation is a sham, more Secretaries of State who do possess the requisite experience and, furthermore, are charged with safeguarding the sensitive identifying information of their constituents aren’t likewise telling Trump and Co. to go jump in the ocean. Even if states are pledging only to share information that is already available to the public and nothing more, that they would give the Commission credence is either a symbol of their complicity, their incompetence, or both. The same goes for those states and Secretaries of State who are “still reviewing” the request or “still waiting” for a letter—and you can add their symbolic cowardice to the mix of what their response or lack thereof may represent.
This commission and the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Registration are just two examples of devices and techniques which serve to actively bar/suppress voter turnout or otherwise purge legitimate voters from minority communities. Denying the vote to felons, disinformation campaigns, photo ID laws, strategic closure of polling places, and voter caging are just some of the methods employed to this effect. Returning to the concept of Democratic Party electoral approach, while the Dems definitely should be criticized for adhering to a losing strategy denoted by the absence of a unified path forward and for failure to credibly invite progressives and working-class Americans to the table, that they are not more robustly fighting this aspect of a white conservative Republican agenda only speaks to their questionable priorities, i.e. big-ticket donations and special interests over true grassroots fundraising and organization. In other words, they don’t give a shit about the little guy much more than the Republicans do—if at all.
As usual, meaningful change in this area will have to come from the bottom-up, not to sound like too much of a Bernie Sanders supporter. We as voters must keep one another informed and demand accountability from our officials on matters of voting rights and voter suppression for the sake of all voters, and maintain this involvement and pressure on those charged with ensuring our privacy and the sanctity of the voting process throughout our campaign and theirs. Donald Trump’s election integrity commission is a crock of shit because he is pointing to a level of voter fraud that doesn’t exist, but this doesn’t mean our system is perfect and that there aren’t important issues to address. Far from it, in fact.