The Republican Backlash Against Trump's Vote-Fraud Commission

GOP secretaries of state have pushed back on a request for voter data, and former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff says it could endanger national security.

Donald Trump and Kris Kobach meet at Trump National Golf Club in November.
Donald Trump and Kris Kobach meet at Trump National Golf Club in November. (Mike Segar / Reuters)

Republicans officials and officeholders were, for the most part, not pleased about the rise of Donald Trump as their party’s candidate, but they found themselves powerless to stop his winning the nomination and then the presidency.

Since Trump became president, however, Republicans have become some of his most effective antagonists, stymieing a range of efforts. House members defeated a first attempt at repealing Obamacare; a Senate bill to do the same is looking precarious. (Democrats, although unified in opposition, have played no real role.) Congress has pursued an investigation into Russian interference Trump dislikes, and may strengthen sanctions he wants to lift. And now Republicans are posing a serious challenge to Trump’s ballyhooed election-fraud commission.

But first, let’s back up a step. The board has always looked like a cynical ploy. Stung by his failure to win the popular vote, even as the electoral college gave him the presidency, Trump has insisted that there were 3 to 5 million votes cast by ineligible voters during the presidential election. This number seems to be based on wildly speculative figures produced by an activist named Gregg Phillips.

A clique of conservatives has been warning for years that elections are irreparably tainted by vote fraud, but repeated investigations have failed to turn up meaningful numbers of fraudulent votes. Meanwhile, the laws that many states have passed, requiring photo ID to vote, making it harder to register and vote, and other changes, have disproportionately made it harder for minorities as well as students and the elderly—all Democratic constituencies—to vote. Some federal courts have even ruled that disenfranchising minorities is the goal of such laws.

Caught making baseless claims, Trump announced he would impanel a commission to investigate voter fraud. (This is a favorite move for the president: When he was caught making a baseless claim that Barack Obama had surveilled him, he demanded that intelligence agencies and Congress investigate his flight of fancy, then said the truth would only come out once those inquiries were completed.) The de facto leader of the commission is Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and one of the most outspoken and successful proponents of the claim of widespread voter fraud.

At the end of June, Kobach made his first big move, requesting all publicly available voter data from the states, including names, addresses, voting history, party affiliation, felony convictions, and the last four digits of Social Security numbers. That’s in keeping with Kobach’s Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which has sought to create a database of registered voters across the entire country.

Unsurprisingly, several Democratic state secretaries of state (or their equivalents) immediately rejected the request. More interesting was the response by Republicans officials at the state level. A number of them have also rejected the request either in part or in full, citing taxpayer costs, privacy intrusions, or the fact that they doubt Kobach’s request can do much to stop fraud.

The most colorful response came from Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican.

“My reply would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great State to launch from,” he said in a statement. “Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our State’s right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes.”

Other officials said that they were not legally permitted to disclose the data the commission requested. Maryland Secretary of State Luis Borunda, a member of the commission, resigned from the group without explanation. Ari Berman, a progressive journalist who covers voting issues closely, found that 45 states had rejected the request in part or in full.

That prompted a sharp statement from Kobach, issued through the White House press office, on Wednesday:

In all, 36 states have either agreed or are considering participating with the Commission's work to ensure the integrity of the American electoral system. While there are news reports that 44 states have "refused" to provide voter information to the Commission, these reports are patently false, more "fake news". At present, only 14 states and the District of Columbia have refused the Commission's request for publicly available voter information.

Kobach has a point, as far as it goes: Some states have agreed to provide that portion of the information that Kobach requested which is actually publicly available. But then again, that information is already publicly available. North Carolina’s elections board, for example, made clear that it was releasing information because it was legally obligated to do so, and added that everything it was releasing was already available on its website. (In a moment of unintentional humor, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach had to inform election-panel co-chair Kris Kobach that this state would not hand over Social Security numbers.)

Meanwhile, Michael Chertoff, a Republican who served as secretary of homeland security in the Bush administration, wrote in a Washington Post column on Thursday that Kobach’s attempt to gather so much personal information constitutes a grave threat to national security, because such a database would be vulnerable to hacking. The overall effect has been that Republican officials are creating a major obstacle to the Kobach commission putting together the database it sought.

That shouldn’t pose much of a danger to electoral integrity, though. If there were actually millions of ineligible voters casting ballots, it would have been detected before. A painstaking 2007 Department of Justice search failed to turn it up, as have other investigations. (Philip Bump illustrated the physical implausibility of these claims in October, too.) In-person voter fraud is extremely rare, yet voter-ID laws and databases like Interstate Crosscheck continue to focus on rooting it out. But simply matching names tends to turn up false positives. That’s something Kobach encountered in Kansas: After he dramatically announced that there were nearly 2,000 dead voters on state rolls, newspapers starting finding the alleged  dead voters alive and well. Similar names often produce false positive results for fraudulent or duplicative registrations.

Yet that’s precisely what Kobach intended to do with the information he collected for the panel, as Jessica Huseman confirmed: The idea is to run the names collected against federal databases to try to find improper registrations. That would likely produce a raft of false positives; some would be successfully challenged, but other eligible voters might see their registrations erroneously thrown out. Given the history of voter-ID laws and Kobach’s results with previous databases, the cynics can be forgiven for suspecting that was the goal all along.