Voter fraud is more rare than being struck by lightning, yet the fear-mongering persists. Don’t blame Donald Trump – blame America’s democratic model
When Kris Kobach was first running for office in Kansas in 2010, he claimed he’d found evidence that thousands of Kansans were assuming the identities of dead voters and casting fraudulent ballots – a technique once known as ghost voting.
Kobach even offered a name, Albert K Brewer of Wichita, who he said had voted from beyond the grave in the primaries that year.
But then it emerged that Albert K Brewer, aged 78, was still very much alive, a registered Republican like Kobach, and more than a little stunned to be told he’d moved on to the great hereafter. No evidence emerged that anyone had ghost voted in Kansas that year.
Seven years on, as Donald Trump’s point man on reforming the US electoral system, Kobach has not backed away from those same scare tactics – no matter that he is frequently called a fraud and a liar, and his allegations entirely baseless.
On the contrary. Backed by a president who, days after assuming office, claimed that 3 to 5 million fraudulent ballots had been cast for Hillary Clinton, Kobach is enthusiastically spreading stories of voter impersonation on a massive scale, of out-of-state students voting twice, and of non-citizens casting illegal ballots.
As vice-chair of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, his mission to root out “fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting” is sending chills down the spines of election experts and voting rights activists who believe he is intent on instituting a sweeping wave of new voter suppression laws.
Vanita Gupta, who headed the justice department’s civil rights division under President Obama, calls the commission “a pretext … to kick millions of eligible voters off the rolls and undermine the sanctity of our election systems”. Already in conjunction with a commission hearing in New Hampshire on Tuesday, a Kobach ally proposed instituting a system of background checks on voters as strict as the checks liberal groups want to impose on gun buyers.
Kobach did not respond to an interview request from the Guardian.
While it may seem astonishing to see such tactics being deployed in the world’s most powerful democracy, they cannot be attributed solely to the rise of Trump. In truth, the politics of electoral combat have been heating towards boiling point for a decade and a half – and are the product of a political system that has never, in more than two centuries, resolved basic questions of democratic accountability and is thus unique in the developed western world.
The 2000 presidential election, and in particular the bruising 36-day fight over Florida’s votes, exposed flaws in the US electoral system that many Americans had not thought about since the end of segregation and the landmark achievements of the civil rights era.
Not only was there a problem of reliability with the voting machines, it also became clear that the United States had never established an unequivocal right to vote; had never established an apolitical, professional class of election managers; and had no proper central electoral commission to set standards and lay down basic rules for everyone to follow, free of political interference.
In the absence of such a body, every jurisdiction was free to play fast and loose with the rules on everything from voter eligibility to whether or not to conduct recounts.
“All these different systems in different counties with no accountability … it’s like the poorest village in Africa,” the chair of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission, Brigalia Bam, later exclaimed on a follow-up tour of Florida on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.
Much of that dysfunction harks back to the country’s shameful racial history. To circumvent constitutional amendments passed in the wake of the civil war, southern states approved a slew of discriminatory laws and introduced literacy tests and good character tests (also adopted in parts of the north) that made it next to impossible for black voters to cast their ballots. James Vardaman, the despotic governor of Mississippi, admitted in 1890 that his state’s new constitution had “no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics”.
Even after segregation and Jim Crow voting laws came to a formal end in the south, modern politicians remained susceptible to the temptations of racist dog-whistles as a way of mustering the support of white voters and justifying the restriction of minority voting rights. Many southern states, for example, have persisted with segregation-era laws banning felons and ex-felons from voting – a restriction that disenfranchised an estimated 6 million voters in 2016, a vastly disproportionate number of them black men.
The Republicans have been especially prone to such corruptions because they are now the natural ruling party in the south, and they have resorted to a similar playbook to the segregation-era Democrats: stoking resentment of northern elites and harking back to the “lost cause” of the civil war. They have also become increasingly insecure about their ability to win national elections. Demographic shifts have eroded their overwhelmingly white base of support, and they have so far resisted repeated entreaties from party elders to broaden that support by moderating their policy positions.
In many states – notably North Carolina and Texas – they have exploited their majority in the state legislature to gerrymander congressional districts to their advantage. While both parties gerrymander, it has become surprisingly common for the Republican party to win fewer votes than the Democrats and still come out ahead in the House or Senate or both.
After the fight over the 2000 presidential race, the GOP’s response was not to sigh with relief that George W Bush squeaked into the White House, but rather to cry foul about African American voters being allowed to stay in line beyond the official poll closing time in St Louis, and to initiate a long, vicious publicity drive to insinuate that voter registration efforts in poor inner city neighborhoods were in fact corrupt enterprises to stuff voter rolls and ballot boxes on behalf of the Democrats.
Often, Republicans seemed to be evoking the era of New York’s Boss Tweed, when voting numbers were routinely padded by repeat voters, out-of-towners, foreigners, and phantom voters who were in reality pets, fictional characters, or stone-cold dead. Such practices, however, were sharply curtailed after the introduction of the secret ballot in the late 19th century, and ceased to be a factor of any significance after the last of the corrupt big city machines was brought to heel and reformed in the 1970s and 1980s. Voter impersonation – of the type Trump has invoked – is not a significant factor, and study after study has shown that while individual voter fraud does occasionally occur, it is rarer than being struck by lightning.
The specter of voter fraud was often invoked in the segregation era as an excuse to crack down on the rights of blacks and poor whites, and so it has proved in this century.
In the wake of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, there was an epidemic of racially coded appeals to the electorate’s worst instincts, including insinuations that Obama was not born in the United States and that busloads of illegal immigrants had poured over the Mexican border to seal his victory at the ballot box.
Most insidious of these efforts has been the introduction of strict new voter ID laws in Republican-run states across the country, because they have proven easy to sell as a common-sense antifraud measure. They also happen to create difficulties for voters – the transient, the elderly, students, the poor, all less likely to have driver’s licenses or other government ID – who are disproportionately black or brown and tend to favor the Democrats.
A government study has suggested that the introduction of stricter ID requirements could shave two to three percentage points off the Democratic party total.
One brake on this trend used to be the 1965 Voting Rights Act, passed at the height of the civil rights era, which gave the justice department veto power over any new election rule or law passed in parts of the country with a proven history of racial discrimination. But in 2013, this so-called preclearance provision of the act was scrapped when the supreme court decided in a hugely controversial 5-4 decision that racial discrimination was no longer pervasive enough in the south to justify it.
Immediately, southern states including North Carolina and Texas passed stunningly restrictive new voting laws that have since been denounced in federal court as openly discriminatory and in violation of Voting Rights Act provisions that are still in force.
Throughout this period, Kobach has not only offered his support to nationwide voter suppression efforts but has been a leader in pushing them as far as possible. In Kansas, where he is secretary of state, he pushed for and eventually obtained a “proof of citizenship” requirement – now being litigated in court – that risked disenfranchising an estimated 7% of eligible voters who do not have a passport or birth certificate.
He has also championed an interstate system of crosschecking voter registrations nationwide that independent studies have shown to be riddled with errors and that critics say is in effect a monstrous mechanism to purge the voter rolls.
Trump owes his political rise to many of the same impulses that have guided this trend in Republican politics. He was himself an enthusiastic “birther” and kicked off his presidential campaign with open appeals to anti-immigrant hostility. Even before the election he was warning of the risk of massive voter fraud and tying it in his supporters’ minds to the specter of out-of-control immigration policies.
All that helps explain the extraordinary alarm and anger that Kobach’s work with the presidential advisory commission has triggered.
When Kobach asked states to provide a dizzying array of data on individuals – including names, addresses, party affilliations, criminal history and more – the Republican secretary of state in Mississippi told him to “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico”. Shortly after, the National Association of Secretaries of State, which is majority Republican, put out a statement reaffirming its commitment to “increasing voter participation”.
“This commission is a fraud. And President Trump has chosen a fraud to be in charge of it,” a former secretary of state of Missouri, Jason Kander, said when it was established.
It explains, too, why the Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer – suddenly in the spotlight following last week’s cross-party deal on lifting the budgetary debt ceiling – saw the racist violence in Charlottesville, and Trump’s failure to offer a full-throated condemnation, as a reason to shut down the election commission.
In a piece published in late August, Schumer condemned the “methodical and pernicious way in which [Trump’s] administration is promoting discrimination, both subtle and not so subtle, in its policies and actions – especially when it comes to undermining the universal right of every American to vote”.
“The president’s ‘Election Integrity Commission’ and the actions of the attorney general are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are a ruse. Their only intention is to disenfranchise voters.”
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