Trump’s voting commission failed, but the GOP’s war on voting rights still threatens 2018 elections

Don't be fooled; the administration isn't abandoning its deceitful effort.

African Americans line up to vote outside Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in the 2008 presidential election. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images
African Americans line up to vote outside Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in the 2008 presidential election. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images

News earlier this week of President Donald Trump’s abrupt disbanding of his Advisory Commission on Election Integrity appeared at first blush to be a profound progressive victory, one that acknowledges how much of a farce the panel was from its inception.

But don’t be fooled; the administration isn’t abandoning its deceitful effort to target the millions of people — primarily African Americans, immigrants, and other people of color — whoTrump falsely claimed should not have voted in the 2016 presidential election.

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“It’s certainly a good thing that this ill-conceived commission has been disbanded,” Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told me in an interview. “But we’re still going to have to watch them because it seems from the statements coming from the White House that they’re still going to be looking for voter fraud where it doesn’t exist.”

The myth of voter fraud is primarily a Republican-driven idea at the federal and state levels of government. Voter ID laws have been passed in nearly half of the nation’s states since 2010. State laws have gone so far as cutting back on polling places and hours in minority communities and purging voter rolls to limit eligible voters from casting a ballot.

To date, no federal laws have been put in place to limit voting rights and the courts have soundly rejected many of the state restrictions. But that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from trying to impose a federal effort to limit voting rights.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there is a long history in the United States of suppressing minority voting rights — including poll taxes and all-white primaries — set up ostensibly to prevent voter fraud that wasn’t occurring in the first place.

It’s easy to understand why this administration and its far-right allies would persist with a snipe-hunt for fraudulent voters. The gathering signs of a Democratic blue wave has begun to wash over the political landscape, largely driven by opposition to Trump and his GOP enablers. According to Amy Walter at Cook Political Report, voters aren’t happy with the president and his policies, and they’re itching to return to the polls to express it. She writes:

In 2016 we made the mistake of rationalizing away the prospect of a Trump victory. He was too unorthodox. He couldn’t possibly sustain momentum through the grueling primary campaign. We should not make same mistake in 2018. Sure, a lot can change between now and next November. And, Democrats have a narrow path to 24 seats — even with a big wave or tailwind. But, do not ignore what’s right in front of us. A wave is building.

Still stinging from losing the popular vote in last year’s presidential election, Trump and his voter suppression allies are only backing up to take a running start at preventing some Americans from legally exercising their right to vote.

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Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement that the White House “continues the false narrative” of voter fraud. “The sham commission was a political ploy to provide cover for the president’s wild and unfounded claims of mass voter fraud, and to lay the foundation to purge eligible voters from the rolls,” she said.

This time around, the administration is employing different tactic — cloaking its search for mystery voters under the cover of hunting terrorists. In Wednesday’s executive order that dissolved the commission, Trump passed its work to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which has as its primary charge the ferreting out of foreign enemies of the state and protecting the nation from terrorist attacks.

In a statement accompanying the order, Trump portrayed the decision as a cost-cutting move, but acknowledged he failed to garner support from state officials for his commission. “Rather than engage in endless legal battles at taxpayer expense, today I signed an executive order to dissolve the commission, and have asked the Department of Homeland Security to review these issues and determine next courses of action,” the statement said.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, vice chair of the now-defunct commission, portrayed the president’s executive order as a “tactical shift” and that officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would scour state voter rolls looking for people who vote illegally.

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This effort is as unlikely to be any more productive than the commission, largely because ICE isn’t equipped for the task, said Ari Berman, a senior reporter for Mother Jones.

“ICE has scant experience in this area and the databases Kobach wants DHS to use… are not designed for that purpose and do not automatically reveal the status of immigrants who become US citizens, which means thousands of noncitizen who are subsequently naturalized could be mistakenly tagged as illegal voters,” Berman wrote this week.

Far worse, Berman argued that ICE would conduct its activities outside public scrutiny, the same flaw that doomed the original Trump voter commission. “To the extent that they are now hoping to conduct their activities shrouded in secrecy, that’s deeply troubling,” Berman quoted Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Moving this commission over to DHS would be an abuse of the agency’s power.”

Rosenberg said the White House seems to be conflating the mission of defending the country against terrorists with illegitimate security concerns involving voter fraud. Truth of the matter, there is virtually no evidence that people are voting illegally across the country, he said, pointing to studies that show it’s more likely for a person to be struck by lightening than to find a case of voter fraud.

In fact, a frequently cited study conducted by Justin Levitt, a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, found that there were only 31 credible cases of voter impersonation from 2000 to 2014 out of more than 1 billion votes cast.

Levitt also noted that voter ID laws, such as those promoted by Trump, have blocked thousands of people from voting in the states that put them in place. For example, a study by the University of Wisconsin revealed the state’s voter ID law stopped or inhibited some 23,000 people from voting in the 2016 election. Of course, those blocked were in places such as Milwaukee County and Madison’s Dane County with large voting populations of African Americans and other people of color.

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Rosenberg said that the commission might have gotten away with imposing restrictions on voting rights if not for the watchdog demands of civil rights activists over the commission’s activities. “It was that scrutiny that was forced upon the commission that successfully led to the need for transparency which caused the commission to fail,” he said, promising that the administration’s new tactic won’t go unchallenged by the civil rights community.

“It’s a lie, a myth that people are voting illegally,” Rosenberg told me. “But Trump seems intent on pressing forward and we’re going to continue to watch and challenge them at every turn to protect people’s voting rights.”