Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
Anyone who favors expanding voting rights should be relieved by Wednesday’s demise of President Trump’s so-called Election Integrity Commission. But the panel’s right-wing agenda to rig the voting process to benefit the GOP will continue.
There’s plenty to cheer about when white nationalists like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the vice-chair, and voter suppressors like the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky were discredited by a panel run in a secretive, conspiratorial, and clownish manner. But these Republicans are not giving up on their plan to create new barriers to eligible voters.
“Amid many challenges for the institutions of American democracy, this was a rousing win,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice. “No doubt, there is fallout to come… The commission has vanished, but its pernicious objectives persist. The White House has asked the Department of Homeland Security to take up the commission’s work—a dangerous and appalling idea. Earlier this morning, the president took to Twitter to renew calls for voting restrictions.”
Indeed, Kobach signaled his next move to Politico, which noted, “The Kansas official said he expects officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and political appointees overseeing that agency to take over the commission’s work and begin efforts to match state voter rolls to federal databases of noncitizens. He insisted he was not disappointed with the president’s decision.”
“It’s the right move,” Kobach said. “It’s a shifting in tactics from having the investigation be done by a federal commission to having it be done by a federal agency. The agency has a greater ability to move quickly to get the investigation done.”
Kobach’s is referring to a strategy employed by the most fervent partisan Republicans to position red-run states to keep new registrants from voting and do mass purges of infrequent but otherwise legal voters from their rolls. In short, it draws on intentionally sloppy data-mining to creates thousands of false positives that are then used to stymie voters. That porous data has been used in recent cycles in Georgia to delay approving new registrations and to accelerate mass purges of voter rolls. But it’s not just Georgia.
In 2014, Florida’s top election official proposed using DHS’s problematic citizenship data to purge voter rolls. In response, county election supervisors rebelled and blocked it—because they still felt the sting of the 2000 election, when Secretary of State Katherine Harris used sloppy data-mining (seeking former felons who could not vote under that state’s laws) to purge tens of thousands of eligible voters before that year’s presidential election.
If Kobach has his way, the contours of that sordid history will repeat itself, including using a DHS database that was never designed to be an authoritative list of every U.S. citizen. But in the years since Harris’ Florida purge, the right-wing strategy has become clear.
Republicans like Kobach strategically target weak points in the voting process. They pinpoint areas in the process that are ambiguous, or where there’s no authoritative national data to counter their claims of purported illegal activity.
For example, there is no federal agency that tracks so-called voter fraud, which these right-wingers define as someone impersonating someone else at the polls to vote more than once, and has become the go-to justificatiom for red-run states to erect new barriers to voting century. Since there’s no single federal agency that tracks so-called voter fraud, it becomes a useful propaganda tool for Republicans because it’s left to acacdemics and the media to debunk it, which these partisans routinely ignore.
The latest high-profile example of this narrative is Trump’s thoroughly debunked claim that millions of Democrats illegally voted more than once to deprive him of 2016’s popular vote majority. But that lie, recited again by Trump’s press office when announcing the commission’s demise, resonates among supporters who want to believe all Democrats are crooks despite vast documentation by academics and the press that voter fraud barely exists. In the absence of an authoritative federal accounting, it becomes an easy pretext for red states to pass laws to, as they purport, police the process’ integrity. In reality, they thwart Democratic voters.
Not surprisingly, on Thursday, Kobach spewed that same line to—where else?—Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News. “They [Democrats] have absolutely no interest in stopping voter fraud,” Kobach told Breitbart. “It’s truly extraordinary that one party in our system has made clear that they don’t care… Some people on the Left were getting uncomfortable about how much we were finding out.”
Kobach, pretending to be authoritative, then cited figures that also have been pedaled by the Heritage Foundation’s von Spakovsky. “The voter fraud commission has revealed: 938 convictions for voter fraud since the year 2000,” he said. “Fewer than 1 in 100 cases ends in a conviction. In Kansas, alone, there are 127 known cases of non-citizen aliens registering to vote. In 21 states, there were 8,471 cases of double voting discovered.”
What’s wrong with these figures? Beyond the fact that some of these numbers, like his Kansas statistics, have been debunked, what’s missing is the context or the larger number, the denominator if you will: that is, how many people voted legally in all the years cited? In other words, how pervasive is this problem? What is its real magnitude in the real world of voting?
The answer is it is a trifle. That’s because well over half a billion people have voted in federal elections alone since 2000, which means the 938 figure is close to a once-in-a-million occurrence. Nonetheless, the absence of an authoritative federal agency tracking this activity and issuing authoritative reports that are respected by legislatures and the courts, perpetuates Kobach’s propaganda. Its absence continues to serve as a red-state pretext to overly police voting—as seen in Trump’s Thursday tweets.
That fabricated backdrop for imposing new restrictions on voting takes us to what’s new and potentially insidious about Kobach’s latest gambit. He wants the Department of Homeland Security to take responsibility for preventing “non-citizen aliens” from voting. Just like voter fraud, there is no authoritative federal database—even at DHS—listing every American citizen. Their database is designed to ensure welfare recipients are entitles to their benefits; but it is not a list of every U.S. citizen.
That deficiency creates an opening which right-wingers like Kobach, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner have sought to exploit—and have exploited—to game the process of voting to up the GOP’s chances of winning. Because DHS’s citizenship database is incomplete, it cannot confirm the citizenship of every new person registering to vote. That omission was exploited by Kemp to delay processing tens of thousands of new voter registrations in 2014. After that November, almost all of those registrations were approved; but not for the election those Georgians wanted to vote in.
When Detzner tried to force Florida county election offices to use DHS’s citizenship data to purge voter rolls—initially claiming, like Kobach, that there were hundreds of thousands of illegally registered voters—local officials balked and forced him to back down. Later, it was revealed that there were fewer than 100 questionable registrants among Florida’s 10 million-plus registered voters.
Why would Republicans focus on proof of citizenship in order to vote? Because, as the Brennan Center reported in 2006 and updated in a report last summer, an estimated 7 percent of eligible voters don’t have such documentation, typically a birth certificate or passport. In other words, adding proof of citizenship to register will reduce participation in elections. (Think of it as a barrier at the starting line of the process, just as stricter state voter ID requirements is a barrier at the finish line.)
“A nationwide survey by the Brennan Center in November 2006 found that 7 percent of the citizen voting age population, or 13 million people, did not possess documents that would prove their citizenship,” the Center’s July 2017 report said. “The rate is twice as high among citizens earning less than $25,000 per year. Women who changed their name upon getting married are especially likely to lack the relevant documents: A third of voting-age women don’t have proof of citizenship that reﬂects their current name.”
In other words, making proof of citizenship a new requirement before getting a ballot will mostly hurt likely Democrats.
Republicans also know that the use of incomplete citizenship data can be used to stymie voters on Election Day. That’s because it is a tool to do pre-emptive voter roll purges, in which inactive voters, especially in blue epicenters, can be disproportionately purged or removed from voting in the next election without reregistering.
That’s not a paranoid scenario. The Supreme Court will later this month hear a case over that very issue from Ohio, where GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted took advantage of two contradictory sentences in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 to purge tens of thousands of mostly Democratic voters from his state’s three biggest cities. Reuters’ reporters analyzed the purge and found it was mostly aimed at Democrats. Here again, the GOP saw and seized on a legal ambiguity and used data to tilt the process.
The reason Kobach and Trump’s commission was so bent on adding a new proof of citizenship standard is it benefits the GOP in many ways. First, as the Brennan Center noted, 7 percent of otherwise eligible voters don’t have the paper documentation.(Today people sign their name on registration forms as an oath under penalty of perjury; these Republicans say that’s not good enough.) Beyond that, knowingly turning to sloppy data-mining to additionally delay new registrants further helps the GOP by thwarting grassroots registration drives. And using bad data to imprecisely target infrequent voters for selective purges also helps them.
It’s a good thing that media scrutiny and public criticism of Trump’s election commission shut down that sham panel. But it was only one means to an end that is still in the GOP’s sights. Indeed, just this week it was revealed thst the Justice Department asked the U.S. Census to include a question on citizenship, citing a need to use that information to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Kobach and his ilk will do anything to subvert the process of voting for Democrats and non-whites. They’ve burrowed into the nooks and crannies of the law and process to exploit ambiguities and contradictions. Just watch what they will try to do in the months ahead—not just with baseless voter fraud accusation, but with screening for citizenship. As they wrap themselves in the flag, look at their data-mining. They know it’s shoddy and going to yield huge numbers of false positives, and that’s just what they want.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).