As Donald Trump is fond of reminding his various interlocutors, he won the Electoral College, thus giving him the presidency. He lost the popular vote, however, by nearly 3 million votes, tainting his win with the stain of illegitimacy and suggesting that, even in victory, he isn’t the “winner” he imagines. But Trump had an explanation: voter fraud. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted in November. And just after his inauguration, in January, he vowed to open an inquiry. “I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD,” he said on Twitter, “including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!”
On Thursday, President Trump delivered on that vow, signing an executive order that would establish a commission to investigate alleged voter fraud and voter suppression in the American election system. According to the text of the executive order, the commission will be tasked with studying “those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections” as well as those laws that “undermine” that confidence, in addition to “those vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices … that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.”
In isolation, this sounds unobjectionable. There’s nothing inherently wrong with creating a commission to address problems in our election system. The trouble is who is leading that commission: Vice President Mike Pence and, more importantly, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Far from a neutral figure, Kobach is a fierce advocate for harsh, restrictive voting laws. By itself, his presence is a sign that this commission is a sham, and that the drive for “confidence” is actually a push to raise the barriers to voting and participation.
To understand why Kobach’s presence on this panel is so alarming, you need to know his background. The architect of draconian anti-immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama—as well as the mind behind Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” rhetoric—Kobach has been a prominent champion for voting restrictions. In the aftermath of 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, Kobach emerged as a major voice for voter suppression. He has backed strict ID laws and pushed for states to require a birth certificate or passport for registration, measures that primarily burden low-income voters, including many voters of color. From his perch as Kansas’ top election official, Kobach has launched a crusade against “illegal voting,” winning power from state lawmakers to prosecute “voting crime.” In keeping with most studies of voter fraud—which find little to no evidence of its existence—Kobach has found just nine cases of alleged fraud out of 1.8 million registered Kansas voters.
By making Kobach a co-chair for this commission, Trump has announced its actual purpose: to impose new strict requirements for voting and registration under the guise of “election integrity.” And while the commission may include Democrats, Kobach’s presence robs it of any credibility. It is a farce.
It is important to say that Kobach isn’t unique in his drive for voting restrictions and that Trump’s obsession with illegal voting reflects the behavior of Republicans across the country. In states like Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers have slashed ballot access and pushed for tough identification laws. These laws fall hardest on voters with the least resources, who disproportionately are black and Latino. In the cases of North Carolina and Texas, federal courts have found that these laws were designed to disadvantage voters of color. Last year, for example, a federal court in Richmond, Virginia, found that North Carolina’s voter ID law “targets African Americans with almost surgical precision.” What we may see from Trump’s commission, then, are national variations on state-level Republican ideas, all of which are designed to shrink the pool of people who participate in our democracy.
To be clear, it is true that the United States needs a comprehensive look at how it does elections. Writing in Slate earlier this year, Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California–Irvine, gave his view of what a legitimate election commission should look like. In addition to scrutinizing claims of voter fraud, it should direct its experts and election officials to scrutinize laws aimed at preventing fraud, to see if they unfairly target legitimate voters. This hypothetical commission, writes Hasen, should ask if it’s “possible that these laws are passed in order to give a partisan advantage to one party or the other rather than to prevent voter fraud?”
Unfortunately, the answer is likely yes. Who votes—and more broadly, who counts—is one of the most contested questions in American politics. If there’s anything that distinguishes today from the past in this regard, mostly universal suffrage aside, it’s that this is a fully partisan question. With few exceptions, Republicans press for restrictions, while Democrats push for expansion. And with restrictionists in the White House, now is an ideal time for Democrats to take up the banner of the franchise. From automatic registration and mail-in balloting to weekend voting and felon enfranchisement, there is a wealth of measures that would boost participation and access, while preserving the integrity of our elections.
As Donald Trump begins his attack on voting, the Democratic Party should make voting rights its rallying cry, a first-order priority for any Democrat that wins office. More than a potential advantage for the party, it’s simply the right thing to do, a statement of belief in a democracy that, at this stage, needs all the help it can get.