The Trump administration is focusing on the wrong threats to the voting process. The consequences could be catastrophic.
A voter on Election Day 2016. Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty
There are two serious threats to the integrity of the 2018 elections and the future of American democracy: the president’s “voter fraud commission” and Russian hackers. The commission’s driving force, co-chair Kris Kobach, the Republican secretary of state of Kansas, has spun tall tales about fraud to justify suppressing the vote. In 2011, Kobach persuaded Kansas’s Republican government to enact a strict photo voter ID law and documentary proof of citizenship for new registrants.
This June, a judge sanctioned Kobach for his “deceptive conduct and lack of candor” in response to discovery requests during litigation over Kansas’s proof of citizenship requirement. In upholding the sanction, Federal District Court Judge Julie Robinson cited a “pattern” of “statements made or positions taken by Secretary Kobach that have called his credibility into question.”
Kobach’s claims of rampant voter fraud to justify Kansas’s restrictive 2011 law were equally misleading. A study by the National Republican Lawyer’s Association aimed at uncovering as much voter fraud as possible nationwide found only a single prosecution for voter fraud in Kansas from 1997 to 2011. When Kobach blamed lax enforcement, the legislature in 2015 made him the only secretary of state in the nation authorized to prosecute voter fraud. Yet as of August 31, the fraud hunter had prosecuted just 12 people out of millions of ballots cast. Ten cases involved double voting. Only two involved non-citizen voting, despite Kobach’s claim that in Kansas, “the total number [of non-citizens] could be in excess of 18,000 on our voter rolls.”
Kansas’s photo voter ID law resulted in a 1.9 to 2.2 percent decline in voter turnout, according to a 2014 study by the nonpartisan US Government Accountability Office. Black turnout dropped by 3.7 percentage points more than white turnout, and turnout by young voters dropped more than among older voters.
In September, in an op-ed for Breitbart, Kobach claimed that “now there’s proof” that illegal voters turned the 2016 New Hampshire senatorial election to the Democrats, because some 5,313 voters lacked either a New Hampshire driver’s license or a registered vehicle in the state. New Hampshire’s Democratic Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a member of the Trump voter fraud commission, debunked that claim: New Hampshire law authorizes temporary residents (such as college students) with out-of-state driver’s licenses and no vehicles registered in the state to vote legally.
Kobach has advocated the crosscheck of voter registration rolls with other lists—for example, of felons or double-registered or deceased persons. Such crosschecks lead to voter suppression because they generate far more false than true matches. A study by professors at Harvard, Stanford, and other universities found that purges based on the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program “would eliminate about 300 registrations used to cast legitimate votes for every one registration used to cast a double vote.” In 2000, Florida erroneously purged thousands of names from the registration rolls, using a flawed list that overrepresented predominantly Democratic-leaning African Americans.
Kobach’s commission is stacked with like-minded figures, like Hans Von Spakovsky, who argued against appointing any Democrats or “mainstream” Republicans on the grounds that “there aren’t any that know anything about this.” The commission may well recommend crosscheck purges, strict photo voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, and other measures that suppress the vote in ways that advantage Republican candidates. One witness invited to speak to the commission proposed making every voter pass the background check used for gun purchases, which would disenfranchise millions of otherwise eligible voters.
Unfortunately, this commission is ignoring the true danger in 2018, which is not voter fraud but Russian hacking to alter the vote. US intelligence officials found that Russian hackers had sought to penetrate registration rolls in some 21 states in 2016, although they did not interfere with the voting machinery. At a cybersecurity conference this summer, attendees easily hacked into a reported 30 voting machines of various types. According to Fox News, “With every machine successfully breached in less than a day, the conference proved the devices are not up to par with modern technologies.”
Trump has at times expressed skepticism about the conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and his administration has shown no inclination to safeguard our voting systems. The imperative then falls upon Congress to enact federal minimum standards for voting machinery (including a paper trail of ballots), and grants to the states for upgrading their technology.
America spends many hundreds of billions of dollars each year for its military; surely the defense of our democracy is surely worth spending a tiny fraction of that sum. According to a 2013 article written by General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, modern wars will be fought not with bombs and bullets, but through cyber attacks that sap the foundations of a society: “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.” Thanks to Trump and Kobach, the US seems destined to fall behind in this vital arms race.
Allan J. Lichtman is a distinguished professor of history at American University and the author of The Case for Impeachment.