Postmortem of a Bad Idea, Poorly Executed
Wednesday night, the White House announced it was dissolving the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (PACEI), its ill-conceived effort to prop up candidate and President Trump’s false claims about widespread voter fraud. The disbanding of PACEI is a positive development, but much more work will need to be done to correct the damage Mr. Trump and his allies have done, and continue to do, to the integrity of our elections and the confidence of American voters in our democracy.
PACEI was at best a vanity project and at worst an intentional distraction, apparently born from Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to accept that, though he won the presidency, three million more Americans voted for his opponent. Just weeks after the election, he floated the idea of massive fraud, then rehashed this baseless claim just days after his inauguration. To justify this wild goose chase, he and the White House repeatedly miscited a study I authored while leading Pew’s elections work in 2012.
That report studied the degree to which voter lists in the United States were inaccurate or incomplete, mainly due to the routine mobility of Americans. In short, up until recently, it was very hard for election officials to keep up with voters as they moved. This report, in part, led to the creation of the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). Over the nearly six years of ERIC’s existence and due in large part to the efforts of many election officials of both parties, voter lists in nearly half of the states have gotten much more accurate while adding millions of new registered voters.
However, one thing not discussed in the report, in any way, was voter fraud. There were no findings with regard to voter fraud, and indeed, no evidence that voters who moved were committing fraud in any way. The Washington Post investigated Mr. Trump’s claim and gave it “four pinocchios.” When David Muir of ABC News told Mr. Trump that I confirmed that the report he was citing said nothing about fraud, the President claimed I was “groveling.”
But the fact remains that voter fraud has been extensively studied and investigated over the past 10-15 years, by the George W. Bush Justice Department, academic researchers, and the states themselves. The findings have been consistent: while the amount of potential voter fraud is not zero, it’s not much more than zero. It’s difficult to find much more than a handful of potentially fraudulent votes even in an election where over a hundred million votes are cast.
So now that PACEI is gone—with who knows how much wasted taxpayer money and resources with it—where do we go from here? I’ll suggest two important areas on which to focus:
- First, we must keep our attention on the real threat – foreign interference and the need to improve the security of our election systems and processes. There has been a lot of positive movement to improve security at the state and local levels (states decertifying paperless systems, implementing more rigorous audits, etc.), but more work needs to be done. And more importantly, while the nation’s election officials have been laser-focused on the issue of cybersecurity since before the 2016 election, they need more resources – funding to buy new technology and resources to train staff and volunteers. We should support efforts in Congress and the states to get election officials those resources.
- Given Mr. Trump’s stated intention to hand over this investigation to the Department of Homeland Security, we must remain vigilant against DHS becoming politicized. Given the threat, we need to ensure constructive cooperation between the federal government (including DHS, the Election Assistance Commission, and the intelligence community) and state and local election officials, as they work to identify specific threats and methods of mitigating the risk of interference. Efforts to facilitate this cooperation got off to a slow start at the end of the Obama administration and the beginning of the Trump administration, but over the past several months, significant improvements have been made. DHS has engaged very constructively in this process, participating in meetings with election officials, among other things, and is now largely viewed as an essential, credible, and non-political partner by election officials. If the White House seeks to distract DHS from this effort, insisting they focus instead on non-existent voter fraud, DHS’s credibility with the states could be damaged. And that would be disastrous to efforts to ensure that foreign governments don’t impact election integrity or voter confidence.
While the demise of PACEI is good news for all those who work for data-driven, efficient, and secure election administration, we aren’t out of the woods yet. It’s bad enough when Moscow works to diminish American citizens’ faith in their system of democracy, but it’s much worse when those efforts are being directed from Washington. Given the President’s recent statements, Americans’ confidence in their system of democracy is still under attack.