Washington’s preoccupation with Donald Trump’s tweets and the multiple probes into his campaign’s possible ties to the Russians have diverted attention from an array of problematic administration actions: removing restrictions on coal mining and offshore oil drilling, rolling back worker safety rules, reviewing protection of public lands.
One that poses an especially dangerous long-term impact is his creation of a commission, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, to investigate Trump’s unproven claims of widespread voter fraud. It’s an unnecessary cure for a nonexistent problem that could encourage moves to limit voting by many Republican-controlled states.
The most obvious warning sign was naming Kris Kobach as its vice-chair. He’s the Kansas secretary of state whose persistent fulminating against fraud has proved to be so much empty rhetoric. So far, only one of nine people snared by his crusade has been an illegal immigrant; most were elderly Republicans who mistakenly voted in two states.
Trump’s action coincided with two events that spotlighted the continuing threat to election outcomes from misguided efforts to curb “fraud.”
The one that got the most attention was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to review an appeals court ruling that negated North Carolina’s strict voter identification law. Unfortunately, some liberal groups celebrated but seemed to minimize the fact the court acted on procedural, not substantive, grounds.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the court might deal with the legal issues in a subsequent case, potentially the one challenging Texas’ strict voter ID law.
Far less attention was given to the study by Priorities USA, a progressive advocacy organization, bolstering claims that voter ID laws restrict turnout and hurt the Democrats. Republicans run most of the 20 states that have implemented or tightened such laws in recent years.
The study concluded that Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law “reduced turnout by 200,000 voters” in a state Trump won by only 22,748 votes. It compared 2016 turnout in states with and without voter ID laws, concluding that turnout increased 1.3 percent over 2012 in states without such laws but dropped 3.3 percent in Wisconsin.
It also said voter confusion over proper identification, such as occurred in Texas in 2016, also reduced turnout, adding that the law had “a disproportionate impact on African-American and Democratic-leaning voters.”
Trump’s commission stems from his oft-stated, albeit unproven, allegation that illegal ballots provided Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s margin of 3 million popular votes. To be fair, he ensured some diversity of viewpoint on the commission by including two Democratic secretaries of state. One, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, predicted the panel won’t find much voter fraud, based on his experience investigating complaints in his state.
Trump also named the nation’s longest-serving secretary of state, New Hampshire Democrat Bill Gardner, who rejected Trump’s claims that “serious voter fraud” enabled Clinton to narrowly carry New Hampshire. Gardner is backing a legislative effort to limit the state’s same-day registration by adding a 30-day residency requirement that some critics say would curb voting by students at state colleges.
The president offset Democratic influence by including Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, who made and later withdrew an unverified contention last October that an unusual degree of altered registration records might indicate “voter fraud,” and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who played a controversial role on several aspects of his state’s close 2004 presidential election.
Meanwhile, the suit challenging Texas’ 2011 voter ID law remains in legal limbo. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals unexpectedly ruled last year that the law had a discriminatory effect, but the court directed further study of whether the bias was intentional. Last month, a federal judge reiterated her initial ruling that the Legislature’s discrimination was intentional.
A status hearing is scheduled June 7, but ultimately Texas is expected to ask the Supreme Court to uphold the law, especially since Justice Neil Gorsuch’s recent confirmation restores the majority that limited the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
A court ruling upholding the Texas law and the built-in biases of the Pence Commission could encourage additional measures to curb voting. While there is widespread agreement that the nation’s registration rolls need updating, there is no more evidence that significant voter fraud exists now than when the Bush Justice Department failed to find it a decade ago.
But curbing voting may be the increasingly white GOP’s best long-term hope of winning elections in a diversifying national electorate.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.