Champions of democracy scored a major victory on Jan. 3 when President Trump disbanded his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Voting rights advocates had brought numerous legal challenges against the highly controversial commission, and the press release announcing the commission’s dissolution cited the deluge of litigation as a reason for the president’s decision.
The seeds of the commission were planted after the 2016 election, when President-elect Donald Trump claimed for the first time that millions of votes were cast illegally. And since then, despite zero evidence, the president has repeated the claim ad nauseam.
Trump formed the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity on May 11, 2017, to gather “evidence” of this alleged voter fraud. The commission drew immediate skepticism, not only for its goal of finding that which does not exist, but also because the commission’s appointed vice chairman was Kansas Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach. In Kansas, Kobach championed a law requiring citizenship papers to register to vote, effectively disenfranchising thousands of eligible voters.
Ultimately the commission was doomed to fail, and not just because it had a shaky rollout and stumbled repeatedly, or even because state officials resisted the commission’s requests for personal voter data. By building its case on 3 million non-existent illegal votes, the commission was always going to falter; it was just unclear how quickly. A house built on lies cannot stand. Alongside the voting rights advocates who brought legal challenges, countless citizens protested outside commission meetings, shining a needed light on the nefarious gatherings and contributing to its downfall.
The presidential commission may be gone now, but we should not begin celebrating just yet. The fight against voter suppression is not over. Even as Trump disbanded the commission, Kobach implied that its investigation into voter fraud would continue and this decision merely represents a “tactical change.”
According to the White House, the Department of Homeland Security will now apparently continue the commission’s work, despite warnings from voting rights advocates that the database DHS might use to crosscheck citizenship status could wrongly accuse naturalized citizens of illegally voting. As the Associated Press reports, “Kobach said he intends to work closely with DHS and the White House, and expects the bulk of the DHS investigation to be done by midsummer.” Kobach indicated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (which operates within DHS) will likely play a role in the continued investigation.
There still is conflicting information about Kobach’s continued role in any DHS investigation. DHS has refuted future involvement by Kobach and has downplayed its commitment to continuing the investigation, and a lawyer representing the committee said collected voter information would not be sent to DHS.
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Voting rights advocates remain worried. Michael McDonald of the United States Elections Project tells us, “Kobach has made it clear he intends to run a secret voter fraud investigation within Department of Homeland Security.” McDonald predicts, however, that a DHS investigation would likely prompt more lawsuits—a phenomenon that Kobach knows all too well at this point.
It was evident that Kobach was using the commission to attempt to set up a national system much like his deeply flawed—and nonsecure—Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, a data-sharing agreement among 30 states to compare voter rolls and flag anyone registered in multiple states who might be voting illegally. The commission’s disbanding might have averted a national program, but the current state-level Interstate Crosscheck remains problematic. While the Crosscheck program might seem innocuous and logical, a statistical analysis done in 2017 found that for every double vote that the program would successfully catch, 300 valid voters would be purged from the voter rolls.
Other threats to voting rights also demand our attention. For one, the effects of state legislation that suppresses voting are still being felt. Voter ID laws across the country, for example, are preventing countless eligible voters from going to the polls.
In addition, previous voting rights successes must be protected. Early on, elections expert and University of California Irvine law professor Richard Hasen said the commission was likely a pretense for gutting the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, more popularly known as the “Motor Voter” law, which—when properly enforced—has been successful at registering voters. Even with the disbanding of the commission, post-commission attempts to undermine the Motor Voter law could be on the horizon.
Regardless of what happens next, all this lying about voter fraud has already caused real damage. A recent poll shows that 59 percent of registered voters are concerned about voter fraud having taken place in the 2016 election, despite there being no evidence of the sort. And while the commission was shut down prematurely, it was successful in scaring parts of the American electorate into disengaging from politics. Thousands of people deregistered to vote after Kobach requested sensitive voter information, likely nervous that their registration data would be improperly used.
To combat whatever Kobach and his voter suppression allies do next, therefore, it is incumbent upon voting rights advocates that we make clear that claims of voter fraud are nothing but lies to provoke distrust of the integrity of our elections. Most importantly, we need to fight for pro-democracy policies, such as automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, and early voting.
The failure of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity teaches us that when citizens step up and fight for democracy, they win. This victory should embolden us to be ever braver and more courageous when we encounter the next sham effort to undermine American democracy.