May 18, 2017
If you really want to make Donald Trump mad, remind him that he lost the popular vote. But Trump has an explanation for how that happened and how it is not his fault: massive widespread voter fraud, to the tune of millions, all of whom “illegally” voted for Hillary Clinton. With this utterly ridiculous mind-set, it is no surprise that Trump is now using his executive-branch bully pulpit to go after what he perceives as voter fraud.
In-person voting fraud—where a voter impersonates someone, for example—is vanishingly rare, and has certainly never swayed an election. A Washington Post study found a whopping 31 impersonation ballots were cast from 2000 to 2014, a timespan in which over 1 billion votes were cast. Non-citizen voting? Doesn’t happen. Dead people? They’re dead, so they don’t vote.
Indeed, large-scale impersonation-type voter fraud is almost impossible. Schemes like vote-buying or throwing out votes have only ever worked in very small elections, and then only for a short time. The amount of money and time and people required—both fraudulent voters and compromised election officials—would be astronomical, and even then it wouldn’t work: Even in non-voter-ID jurisdictions, you have to show some sort of proof that you are who you are, such as providing a matching signature or your name and address.
Facts don’t really stop Trump, however, which is why we now have an executive order on “election integrity.” Theoretically, the EO is meant to cover a host of voting problems—improper registrations, improper voting, fraudulent registrations, fraudulent voting, and voter suppression. However, it is clear from Trump’s past statements and the people Trump has put in charge of this effort that he won’t be dealing with voter suppression at all. Instead, it looks like this commission will actually be working hard to suppress the vote of people of color, poor people, and youth—all demographics that tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat.
How can you be sure this is the case? Because both of the high-level people he’s named—Vice-President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach—are already enthusiastic proponents of voter suppression.
During the 2016 election, Mike Pence made very clear, both as the governor of Indiana and as a candidate, that he would happily stop people from voting. Only a week prior to Indiana’s voter registration deadline in 2016, there was a police-fueled crackdown on one of that state’s major voter-registration drives, a drive that just happened to be designed to maximize African-American registration and election participation. That crackdown happened because elections officials initially spotted ten registrations they felt had missing or incorrect information, out of 45,000 overall.
As a candidate, Pence told voters to go be poll-watchers to ensure “the integrity of the ‘one person, one vote.’” This, of course, unsubtly implies that people will be up to no good at the polls and need to be watched. He also praised Indiana’s voter-ID law, saying “You need a picture ID to cash a check at a grocery store; there’s nothing wrong with asking people to have a picture ID to exercise the blood-bought franchise of voting in this country.” (Well, there is actually a lot wrong with it. The former isn’t a right, while the latter is. The grocery store is free to impose anything it wants upon you if you want to buy food there, but the grocery store isn’t the government, and buying groceries isn’t participating in the fundamental exercise of democracy.)
Mike Pence isn’t even the worst of them, at least as far as the GOP goes. When your party retains power in large part by ensuring those who oppose it can’t vote, you need to be committed to voter suppression. Kris Kobach, however, is next-level bad. The ACLU even calls him “the king of voter suppression.”
As Secretary of State in Kansas, Kobach crafted that state’s strict voter-ID law, which went into effect in 2011. In the runup to the 2016 election, Kobach rejected voting applications from approximately 18,000 people who had registered to vote at DMV locations in Kansas. Kansas had passed a law that required people to provide proof of citizenship when registering to vote, but that requirement was in direct conflict with federal law. After he was ordered by a federal district court to register those 18,000 people, Kobach came up with the idea that he could create a two-tiered voting system where those people would be allowed to vote in the federal elections, but barred from state and local ones. A state court judge told him he couldn’t do that either.
As far as Trump’s entirely fictional concern that there is a teeming mass of unchecked voter fraud, Kobach has put his thumb on the scale: He’s already said that he agrees with Trump that millions of votes were illegally cast in Hillary Clinton’s favor in the 2016 election.
It should also be noted that Kobach is also one of the chief authors and proponents of vicious anti-immigrant “papers, please” legislation, just in case his views on voter suppression weren’t repugnant enough.
There are actually huge problems with American elections, but none of them will be fixed in the commission proposed by Trump. The actual things that need fixing don’t sound as sexy—or scary—as “voter fraud.” And most of them cost money.
Many of the more dramatic stories about voting machines focus on their hackability. To be fair, America’s voting machines are aging, and aging tech is vulnerable to attacks. That said, many of those hacks require things like having physical access to the machine to slip in malicious hardware as well as a software hack that would typically need to come via the Internet. However, voting machines aren’t connected to the internet. In other words, effective voting-machine hacking would also require human conspirators that would allow access to machines and then ignore the multiple checks and balances most jurisdictions have to ensure voting integrity.
A far more likely hack—and one that happened in 2016—would be an attempt to hack state voter-registration systems—which are connected to the internet. Those types of hacks couldn’t affect election results directly, but could affect who gets to vote.
All of that said, there are actual huge problems about voting machines. America’s voting machines are aging, and there’s no real money coming from the federal government to help states deal with their older machines. That’s a problem when those voting machines use laughably-outdated and nearly impossible to maintain technology such as zip drives, but it is downright disenfranchising when those voting machines make it very difficult for disabled individuals to vote. Additionally, a committee in the House has recently voted to eliminate the United States Election Assistance Commission, (EAC), which provides resources about voting machine security and upgrades, as well as general election administration.
We also run the very foundation of our democracy—the actual elections—on a shoestring. Recruiting people to be poll workers (called “election judges” in some locations) is so hard that the EAC has to result to cute infographics to explain how to recruit and train quality poll workers. One of the reasons it is hard is that it pays poorly. Poll workers have to attend training prior to elections and pull 12-plus-an-hour shifts on Election Day, and for that they’ll make anywhere from $85 to $300 total.
Further, instead of making voting compulsory or providing robust funding for each state to do their own get out the vote initiatives, we’ve left it to private groups. Each election we have a hodgepodge of entities as disparate as Uber, the NRA, local-level nonprofits, and climate change advocacy organizations all spending their money to get people to go to the polls.
The biggest problem with American elections is actually the one thing that Trump’s commission will pretend to study, but never really will: We disenfranchise a mind-numbingly high amount of people. Millions of people are barred from voting because of a felony conviction, even if they have long since served their time. Around 11 percent, or approximately 21 million Americans, don’t have any form of government-issued identification, and that amount skews disproportionately towards people of color. Voting rules and eligibility requirements vary wildly from state to state, which means that anyone who has only recently moved to a new jurisdiction may not actually know enough details, in enough time, to be able to vote. In short, we make it really hard for a huge amount of our population to vote.
The purging of voter rolls is also handled differently from state to state, and that poses a problem. Purging voter rolls is actually a necessary function. It is the way that we ensure dead people don’t stay on the rolls forever, or that you’re not still on the voter roll in New York when you’ve lived in Wyoming the past four years. But when each state can set rules on how it purges and there’s no transparency in the process, it means that people can show up at their polling place only to find they are no longer listed as a voter and instead have to cast a provisional ballot.
Purging is sometimes done to explicitly remove minorities from the voting rolls. The most famous example was in 2004, when Florida proposed removing 48,000 people it said were suspected felons. However, 22,000 of those were African-American voters, a clear over-representation. Moreover, many people on the list were actually eligible to vote, either because they had always been eligible or because their voting rights had been restored post-conviction.
Similar things happened in 2008. A local election official in Mississippi illegally purged 10,000 voters—from her home computer!—a week before the 2008 presidential primary. A Georgia official purged 700 people who were ostensibly ineligible to vote because they’d been convicted of a crime, but the list included people who hadn’t ever received as much as a parking ticket.
In 2016, conservative groups challenged the registration of thousands of voters at a time, forcing them to prove their eligibility to vote. Purges in Ohio also resulted in disproportionate removal of poor people while purges in Georgia resulted in disproportionate removal of people of color. In other words, voter purges can be used by local officials to systematically alter who is able to vote, and that often means that people that would typically vote for Democrats are removed from the rolls.
To really fix the shortcomings of the American elections process, we would need to, as a nation, make a real commitment to doing work that is both boring and costly. We would also need to make a commitment to ensuring that everyone gets to vote, a thing Republicans are actively against. Under Donald Trump and his ilk, there is no way that we will see those things happen.