President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission is illegal and unconstitutional — that’s why we filed a lawsuit

N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Sherrilyn Ifill on how the panel targets Black and Latino voters

Published July 27, 2017 5:30AM (EDT)

Hans von Spakovsky; Donald Trump; Kris Kobach   (WikiMedia/Getty/SaulLoeb/AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Hans von Spakovsky; Donald Trump; Kris Kobach (WikiMedia/Getty/SaulLoeb/AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund recently filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission as illegal and unconstitutional. Our complaint makes clear that to falsely allege that voter fraud exists is nothing more than a pretext for the suppression of Black and Latino voters. Ours is the seventh suit against the commission, and the first to allege that it discriminates against voters of color.

Statements made by President Trump and his surrogates demonstrate the connection between race and the commission's search for voter fraud. Without offering any evidence, the president has repeatedly claimed that voter fraud is rampant in the U.S. and that he lost the popular vote in the 2016 election because of millions of “illegal” votes cast for Hillary Clinton. He has couched these allegations in racially coded terms, implying that voter impersonation is perpetrated mostly by immigrants or residents of predominantly Black urban centers. A few weeks before the election, then-candidate Trump told a predominantly white crowd in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, “I just hear such reports about Philadelphia. … We have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us and is not taken away from us.” He added: “Everybody knows what I’m talking about.”

The commission’s members have made similar insinuations. Vice chairman Kris Kobach, Kansas’ Secretary of State, has associated minority voters with “ethnic cleansing.” In 2014, he described a conspiracy to “[replace] American voters with illegal aliens.” Just this week, a federal judge upheld an earlier ruling against Kobach, citing a “pattern” of “misleading the Court” about documents he was photographed taking into a meeting with Trump last November. Kobach initially refused to produce the documents, which included text that read “Draft Amendments to the National Voter …," and was subsequently fined by the court. U.S. District Judge Court Julie Robinson ruled this week that “statements [were] made or positions taken by Secretary Kobach that have called his credibility into question.”

Commissioner Hans von Spakovsky, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, dismissed evidence of foreign interference in the 2016 election by stating without any factual basis that the “real” threat “is from inaccurate voter rolls full of ineligible voters, from the dead to noncitizens to felons.”

In a column for the far-right website, Commissioner J. Christian Adams wrote: “…when it comes to voter fraud, when you catch one crook, it usually means there are hundreds more hiding in the darkness. When it comes to aliens voting, it’s more like thousands and thousands.” He also alleged that the Obama Administration was attempting to “import populations with cultural and legal traditions foreign to American traditions,” and that “noncitizen voting helps the left win elections” – statements with no factual basis whatsoever.

All rigorous studies of voter fraud have proven that in-person voter fraud is a myth used to justify laws and policies that make it harder for persons of color to vote, like the restrictive voter ID laws passed in Alabama, Texas and North Carolina, and elsewhere. Federal courts have struck down these laws as discriminatory on multiple occasions. In its ruling invalidating North Carolina’s voter ID statute, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals went so far as to say that the law “target[s] African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

All of this leaves little doubt about the real purpose behind the President’s Election Integrity Commission: to curb minority voting rights and make our electorate less representative of the American public. That impression was only deepened earlier this month when Secretary Kobach sent a letter asking all 50 states and the District of Columbia to turn over their voter rolls. There is reason to believe that the commission hopes to check voter roll data against federal databases to find irregularities like double voting, a method known as “crosschecking” that experts have shown to be discriminatory against Black and Latino voters.

The commission’s request was met with widespread bipartisan outrage, forcing the body to suspend its data collection efforts for now. But severe damage to our democracy has already been done. The mere knowledge that the White House is interested in voters’ personal data has a chilling effect, especially on the minority voters whom the president and his surrogates have so often demonized. Citizens are removing themselves from voter rolls because of the mere specter of federal intrusion. And with the Department of Justice compelling states to turn over data on how they maintain voter rolls, there is ample reason to fear that voters of color won’t feel secure as long as this commission is in place.

Americans have made extraordinary sacrifices to expand voting rights – from the soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War, to the marchers who braved the bullwhip and billy club at Selma. We have come too far toward a truly representative democracy to turn back now, which is why the Legal Defense Fund is going to court. The occupant of the White House swears an oath to protect our democracy; we will not stand idly by while he and his supporters assault it.

By Sherrilyn Ifill

Sherrilyn Ifill is the seventh President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. A critically acclaimed author, Ifill’s book “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” reflects her lifelong engagement in and analysis of issues of race and American public life.

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