We’ve now had a weekend to ruminate on The President’s signing of an executive order last week, establishing a “Commission on Election Integrity.” Even with the perspective of some time, the order and the way it was approached leads to far more questions than answers. Specifically, why is this commission being formed, who will participate on it, and how will it operate? Some thoughts on the why, who, and how:
- As I’ve discussed before and most recently here, voter fraud has been investigated extensively, by researchers, by the Bush Justice Department, and perhaps most importantly, by Secretaries of State and other election officials from both parties after every major election. 2016 was no exception. Every investigation of voter fraud has uncovered only a handful of potentially fraudulent votes cast. Experts from across the political spectrum conclude the same thing – the number of potentially fraudulent votes cast in any national election is very small, amounting to about .001% of votes cast or less.
- The Secretaries of State and other election officials from across this country have been effectively preventing voter fraud and, in those rare instances where it does occur, prosecuting that fraud, for years. The laws the states have in place are clearly working – voter fraud carries with it severe penalties (years in prison and substantial fines), while only promising as a possible reward one additional ballot cast. In addition, states are using better technology and tools to prevent fraud before it occurs, such as the Electronic Registration Information Center which enables participating states to identify voter records that are out-of-date due to a move or a death well before an election, and states are being transparent about efforts to deter and investigate potential fraud. Why now, when states are doing a better job than ever before at deterring and preventing fraud, is the federal government proposing yet another intrusion into the states’ administration of elections?
- There have been three other national bipartisan commissions on elections established in just the last twenty years – one of which was authorized by President Obama only four years ago – and each has looked at these issues to some degree. The need to spend taxpayer money on yet another commission only three years after the last one issued its recommendations is highly suspect.
- The chair and vice-chair of the Commission, Vice President Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, are both Republicans. All but two announced members of the Commission are Republicans, with the only two Democrats – Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner – both being among the few secretaries elected by their state legislatures and not by election of the voters in their state. While it may not be constructive to question the motives of anyone participating on this Commission, it doesn’t help perception that its vice-chair tweeted about his participation on the Commission while linking to his campaign website.
- The Commission’s odd launch and questionable goals have most Democratic secretaries publicly criticizing the Commission and/or pledging not to participate, and even some Republican secretaries, like Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, have announced that they will not participate in the Commission.
- The recent commissions to study American elections – Carter-Ford in 2001, Carter-Baker in 2005, and the Presidential Commission on Election Administration in 2014 – were demonstrably bi-partisan efforts, chaired by credible experts in American elections from both parties. Extraordinary efforts were made to include both parties in the process from the very beginning and to appoint members and establish the scope of the inquiries. The Commission on Election Integrity has none of these features. It was planned in secret, without any input from Democrats, many Republicans, or important organizations like the bipartisan National Association of Secretaries of State, who were as surprised as the rest of us by the announcement last week.
- Though initial press reports indicated that there would be some balance to the Commission’s mandate, looking at both alleged voter fraud and voter suppression, only voter fraud is explicitly mentioned in the executive order. Again, this is contrary to the balanced approach of previous national commissions on elections.
There are further questions about how this commission will operate and who else will be part of it. Who will be the remaining commissioners? Will there be professional staff hired? Will there be an effort to bring on a diverse set of expertise and perspectives, including those that disagree with the President’s unfounded allegations? Will the process of this Commission be transparent and bi-partisan, and inclusive of the views of those who know elections best – the election officials from around the country? Is the ultimate goal of this Commission to recommend federal legislation imposing additional requirements on the states or something else?
We’ll all have to wait and see. But unfortunately, this Commission has not gotten off to an auspicious start.