Kris Kobach's "voter fraud" circus goes off the rails

At its first meeting, Trump's "election integrity" commission reveals its ugly, hyper-partisan inner self

Published September 23, 2017 7:00AM (EDT)

Kris Kobach (Getty/Saul Loeb)
Kris Kobach (Getty/Saul Loeb)

When Dr. John Lott Jr. came before the Kobach-Pence “election integrity” commission last week and called for background checks for voters – the same kind that gun owners must undergo before purchasing a weapon – even the clowns had to realize that the circus had run off the road.

After all, there are more than 30,000 gun deaths annually in America. Between 2000 and 2014, however, every comprehensive study – whether by courts, academics or journalists -- have found only a handful of cases of voter impersonation. Lott, however, told the commission that his proposal would allow Democrats to “go and prove, essentially, to Republicans, that there’s no fraud.”

There can no longer be any reasonable doubt that it is the fraudulence of this commission, rather than unverified claims of voter fraud, that is the greater threat to our democracy.  

Last Tuesday’s second meeting of Trump’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, headed by Kansas Secretary of State and newly minted Breitbart columnist Kris Kobach, began under clouds of controversy that only grew darker as the day progressed.  

It opened with accusations of impropriety from commissioners aimed at the commission itself. It was spattered throughout with conflicting assessments of how election data can, and can’t, be used to determine voter fraud. Then the day ended with the revelation that one of the commissioners, the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, had urged the commission to exclude Democrats, “mainstream Republicans and/or academics” from the commission. (Yet they welcomed Lott, whose work has been repeatedly debunked by academics and who created a phony online persona to praise and defend his work.)

In the week prior to the meeting in New Hampshire, Kobach had already drawn criticism for alleging that there was “proof” that New Hampshire’s 2016 election results included “5,513 fraudulent votes” which, he also claimed, was more than enough to swing the U.S. Senate and presidential election to the Democratic Party, given that “surrounding states are Democrat strongholds.”

Kobach stood by his allegations, even though several officials, including commission member and New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democrat, pointed out that Kobach wrongly assumed that the 5,513 voters identified were required to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license. Gardner defended his state’s electoral results: “The problem that has occurred because of what you wrote is . . . the question of whether our election as we have recorded it is real and valid. And it is real and valid.”

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, also a Democrat, went further, explaining that motor vehicle law can’t be used to determine voter fraud. “That would be almost as absurd as saying if you have cash in your pocket that you robbed a bank.”

The two panels that focused on election statistics, integrity and public confidence conflated the testimony of experts with partisan activists who misused data and made unwarranted assumptions to allege widespread voter fraud. For example, in the morning panel, political scientist Andrew Smith of the University of New Hampshire and veteran election data expert Kimball Brace provided detailed analyses of why voter turnout estimates vary across geography and time and the difficulties associated with estimating voter registration and turnout rates.  

In the second panel, Donald Palmer, former secretary for the Virginia State Board of Elections, discussed the work of previous commissions, the problem of inaccuracy in voter rolls and best practices for voter list maintenance, including online voter registration and interstate data sharing.

These thoughtful presentations were overshadowed, however, by extravagant claims made by panelists like Ken Block, who recently authored a report on double voting (i.e., cases where the same person votes in different states or jurisdictions) for the Government Accountability Institute, founded by former Trump chief strategist and Breitbart executive Steve Bannon.  

Block contends that nearly 8,000 votes were matched through Social Security number verification as double voters, using an algorithm provided by a private vendor. Data matching assumes accurate data, but the Social Security inspector general has previously warned against using the SSA database for voter verification, due to unreliable matches and false positives. Nevertheless, Block’s data was heavily relied on by other panelists, including von Spakovsky, who repeatedly made additional, unsubstantiated claims about noncitizen voting and other forms of voter fraud, serving as both a panelist and commissioner.

Von Spakovsky’s most revealing statement, however, was not his public commentary. Earlier in the day, the Campaign Legal Center released a Freedom of Information Act request showing that an official (names were redacted) from the Heritage Foundation penned a letter that eventually reached the desk of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, protesting against the placement of academics, Democrats, or anyone other than “experts on the conservative side on this issue.” When ProPublica national politics reporter Jessica Huseman asked von Spakovsky if he knew about the email, he said “I didn’t know anything about it.” Kobach also denied that anyone at Heritage raised these concerns with him.

A short time later, Huseman verified with Heritage that von Spakovsky was in fact the author of the email. In normal times, a commissioner lying about an attempt to game an election commission for partisan purposes would signal the end of that person’s credibility as an election expert and would have put this entire kangaroo court to bed. But these are not normal times.

Instead, what we witnessed on that day in New Hampshire is likely just the beginning of an organized, if somewhat incompetent, attempt to rewrite the nation’s electoral laws to be more restrictive, intentionally excluding some eligible voters in order to advantage others. One of the commissioners who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, Alabama probate judge Alan King, a Democrat, said as much in his pre-meeting statement: “It’s clear to me that there is an agenda to deprive people of the right to vote and that is wrong.”

The clearest sign of this strategy was seen in Lott’s presentation. His proposal for voter-registration background checks sounds absurd. Guidelines to prevent dangerous people from owning weapons have no parallel with citizen voter eligibility, and given Lott's past statements that databases used for these verifications are “rife with errors,” it would seem that he was just trolling Democrats.

Yet such an extreme suggestion actually creates a policy space in which other “protections” against the “threat” of voter fraud look like moderate compromises by comparison. Lott also told the commission that, according to his research, restrictive voting laws actually enhance voter turnout, although published academic studies provide no support for this claim. Evidence-based public policy is not really the point of his proposal or this commission.

King saw through the obfuscation and identified the real goal of these background checks and identity verification charades. Such restrictions, he observed, are “about disenfranchising, in my opinion, those perhaps who live in apartment complexes, who are maybe less educated, who maybe for whatever reason in life, they’re not at a level that some people are. That’s what this is about.” 

The assault on voting rights we are now witnessing is part of a coordinated effort to produce gerrymandered districts and enable unresponsive legislatures to obstruct democratic participation. It has helped produce a situation where, if Democrats win more total votes for the U.S. House in 2018 but fail to retake the chamber (as happened in 2012), the White House and both branches of Congress will be controlled by the side with fewer votes. Now this Keystone Kops commission, draped with the authority of the White House, is wildly misleading Americans to distract from very real threats to the integrity of our elections. If our democracy was a horror film – and increasingly it resembles one – the dreaded call would be coming from inside the house.

By Michael Latner

Dr. Michael Latner is an associate professor of political science at California Polytechnic State University and the co-author of “Gerrymandering in America.”

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By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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