Kobach’s Looking-Glass Commission

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Vice President Mike Pence, left, accompanied by Vice-Char Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, right, speaks during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity on July 19, 2017. 

There was a surreal quality to the presidential “election integrity” commission’s first meeting on Wednesday, which was streamed live from a government building next to the White House, but was not open to the public.

President Trump strode in to declare that “this is not a Democrat or Republican issue” and hail the “bipartisan” nature of a commission that’s headed by two Republicans and dominated by GOP members. He pledged a “very transparent process” that “will be open for everybody to see,” on a commission that’s already been sued for violating the disclosure and open meeting requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

The commission’s official chairman, Vice President Mike Pence, quoted Ronald Reagan calling the right to vote “the crown jewel of American liberties,” then yielded the floor to commissioners who laid out an agenda focused on chasing down and prosecuting supposed voter fraud—a problem that repeated studies have found is virtually nonexistent.

Most ironic of all, several commissioners—including the panel’s vice chairman and de facto head, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach—bemoaned Americans’ lack of faith in the fairness and integrity of American elections. Yet Trump, on welcoming the group, stoked that very mistrust by issuing some of his most sweeping indictments of the U.S. election system to date.

Having previously claimed without proof that between three million and five million voters cast fraudulent ballots last year, Trump took a jab Wednesday at the more than three dozen states that have refused to fully comply with the commission’s sweeping request for reams of privileged voter-registration data—a demand that’s been put on hold while a federal judge mulls a privacy group’s request for a restraining order.

“If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they’re worried about,” declared Trump. “And I ask the vice president and I ask the commission: What are they worried about? There’s something. There always is.” Trump went on to warn ominously that “throughout the campaign and even after, people would come up to me and express their concerns about voter inconsistencies and irregularities which they saw, in some cases, having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states.”

It was precisely the kind of overheated conspiracy talk that has led many voting-rights advocates to conclude that the commission is founded on a dangerous lie and will do more to suppress votes than protect them. The commission faces multiple lawsuits alleging privacy, civil rights, and procedural violations. What worries state election officials is typically not fraudulent voting, but cybersecurity, particularly in light of new evidence that Russian hacking attempts last year targeted voter rolls in 21 states.

Yet the commission’s plan to create a centralized repository of voter information, apparently with the purpose of cross-checking it against federal databases to weed out non-citizens, would dramatically increase the risk of foreign meddling. Russian hacking attempts failed last year largely because American elections are so decentralized.

By creating a central database of voter records, with no explanation of how personal identifying information would be secured, the Trump commission all but invites identity thieves and foreign actors to come on in and steal or tamper with American voter information.

Because the voter information it receives from states will be relatively scant, given the number of election officials who are chary of turning over sensitive data, the commission also stands no chance of performing accurate cross-checks of eligible voters. Millions of Americans share the same name and date of birth, so comparing voter rolls accurately requires far more detailed information.

That’s why a Kobach-launched database dubbed the Interstate Crosscheck Program, designed to eliminate registrations in more than one state, is so riddled with errors. The program “promotes purging registration records that share a common name and date of birth,” concludes a recent study by several leading scholars, an approach that would yield 200 false positives for every legitimate case of double-registration.

By contrast, a sophisticated database created in 2009 by a bipartisan team of election administrators, technology experts, and academics has proven far more reliable. Its creators spent more than three years hashing out how to accurately and securely cross-check voter data between states. The result was the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), now a nonprofit consortium run by 20 states and the District of Columbia.

Several election experts have wondered why Trump’s commission didn’t make ERIC its first stop when seeking voter data. Wayne Williams, the Republican secretary of state of Colorado, recently urged Kobach in a letter to learn about ERIC’s processes and security protocols. While the commission’s request for voter data “may serve a purpose,” Williams cautioned, “a single request for data that lacks the non-public data necessary to accurately match voters across states can’t be used to effectively assess the accuracy of voter rolls.”

If anything, though, the commission appears poised to saddle states with yet another sweeping data request—even as election officials scramble to fulfill the first one (or refuse to comply with what they believe is a politically motivated, illegal request). At Wednesday’s meeting, GOP commissioner Hans von Spakovsky, a right-wing proponent of voter fraud theories, suggested that the commission also ask states what federal databases they tap when verifying voter registrations. States should be looking at federal death records, he said, as well as databases of non-citizens and illegal immigrants who have been federally detained.

The implication, of course, is that large numbers of non-citizens are registering and voting in U.S. elections. There’s no evidence of that, however, and the danger that eligible voters will find themselves erroneously purged if states follow the commission’s lead is substantial.

Trump and his commissioners can make all the lofty promises they like. But the commission’s actions reveal its true intent.

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