WASHINGTON – Prior to the 2016 election, Donald Trump warned on several occasions that the upcoming electoral contest would be “rigged” against him, despite the fact that he would later win that very election. Trump’s basis for calling the elections “rigged” was his assertion that voter fraud in the United States is rampant. While some studies have pointed to irregularities with voter registration systems and others – along with undercover journalism — have at least entertained the possibility for voter fraud to occur, several other studies have found that voter fraud is extremely rare.
Despite winning the election, Trump later claimed that as many as three million unlawful votes were cast last November, a claim that spurred the president to create a commission to investigate voter fraud earlier this year in May. Officially named the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, the body is co-chaired by Vice President Mike Pence – who downplayed Trump’s “rigged” election claims last year – and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach – whose desire to make major changes to voting systems nationwide is well known. Since May, the commission has yet to turn up evidence of the “widespread” voter fraud it was tasked with investigating.
The commission has been highly controversial since its inception. Critics have maintained from the beginning that it actually seeks to undermine the right to vote and to increase voter suppression — as opposed to protecting against voter fraud, as it claims. In addition, the commission’s request for personal voter information in June sparked widespread condemnation, leading more than 20 states to refuse to comply with the request.
Even Kansas, where commission co-chair Kris Kobach is the state’s top election official, was unable to comply with the request that Kobach himself had drafted, due to existing state law. More recent scandals have involved commission staff, such as a researcher who was arrested last week on child pornography distribution charges.
While the commission’s members have rejected assertions that they are seeking to further voter suppression, several of those picked to serve on the commission have dark histories of promoting voter suppression legislation — which some have compared to the tactics used during the Jim Crow era to thwart the turnout of minorities. Given the strong ideological agendas of several of the commission’s members as well, as their apparent lack of interest in examining much more potent modes of election rigging – such as vote counting fraud – Trump’s “Electoral Integrity” Commission seems to be driven by an ulterior political motive.
Commission led by rogue’s gallery of vote suppressors
Critics of the commission often point to the body’s vice chair, Kris Kobach, as proof of the commission’s ulterior aim in reviving Jim Crow-era voter suppression tactics. Indeed, Kobach’s actions and rhetoric – prior to the commission’s formation as well as after – suggest that Kobach is fiercely determined to overhaul the national voting system. He is well known for exaggerating the extent of voter registration fraud and for championing restrictive voting laws well beyond Kansas.
Kobach’s tenure as Kansas Secretary of State — specifically his involvement in pushing through restrictive voting laws and prosecuting alleged instances of voter fraud — has led to his office becoming embroiled in ongoing litigation with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has dubbed him the “King of Voter Suppression.” The ACLU argues that the Kansas voter ID law Kobach championed has disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters who would otherwise be allowed to vote legally in other states.
Kellyanne Conway and other Trump advisors have cited Kobach as the originator of Trump’s claim that millions of illegal votes were cast for Clinton last November. However, Kobach has provided no concrete evidence to support that claim beyond referencing the titles of a few studies. As the Kansas City Star reported, the author of one of the studies Kobach cited said that his research actually found that the rate of noncitizen voting was near zero.
Even Kobach’s supporters have acknowledged that Kobach is increasingly unlikely to look at any of the commission’s findings objectively and is set to be guided by his strong a priori opinions. For instance, even Mark Kahrs, a member of Kansas’ Republican National Committee, called Kobach an “inspired pick” for the commission but also conceded that “I think he’s got strong opinions and positions, so I think it’s more than likely that he’ll go in with ideas about what needs to be done to reform our election law.”
Another member of the commission whose selection has caused controversy is Hans von Spakovsky, an attorney and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank. He previously served as a member of the Federal Election Commission and worked at the Justice Department under the George W. Bush administration, where he sparked several legal battles over voting laws. More than half of the career lawyers in the Justice Department’s voting section left in protest during his tenure.
Nicknamed the “Dark Prince of Voter Fraud Alarmism,” von Spakovsky has championed controversial voter eligibility laws, including a 2005 Georgia law that many at the Justice Department argued would disproportionately disenfranchise the state’s African-American voters. The federal judge who eventually overturned that law compared it to a “Jim-Crow era poll tax.” Since then, some analysts have argued that von Spakovsky has “done more than anyone else” to bring fears of voter fraud into mainstream Republican discourse.
Yet, as darkly purposeful as the Kobach and von Spakovsky appointments seem to many, perhaps the most troubling member of the commission is Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state who made an unsuccessful run for governor in 2007. Blackwell is particularly notorious for his role in the 2004 presidential election, where he helped generate unprecedented voting irregularities and anomalies in the election that many observers claimed “threw” the election to Bush.
The substantial evidence of voter intimidation and fraud that took place led to more than 50,000 complaints from voters and a congressional inquiry. A federal judge later accused Blackwell of seeking to “accomplish the same result in Ohio in 2004 that occurred in Florida in 2000.”
Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio noted in 2011 that Blackwell’s role in the 2004 election is a textbook example of voter suppression in the service of furthering partisan political goals:
“The secretary of state is supposed to administer elections—not throw them. The election in Ohio in 2004 stands out as an example of how, under color of law, a state election official can frustrate the exercise of the right to vote.”
Ignoring the kind of fraud that actually changes election outcomes
While the members of Trump’s electoral integrity commission are squarely focused on the issue of voter fraud — a phenomenon that most argue is a non-issue, because it is both very rare and very unlikely to affect the outcome of elections — they ignore the graver threat to elections posed by vulnerabilities to vote counting fraud resulting from a now near-total dependence on electronic voting machines.
As Real Clear Politics noted last year, Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines with no paper trail (i.e. a paper record of votes) can easily be tampered with in such a way that could be “impossible to detect” and there is a mounting body of evidence that such “meddling” has been happening for years. Reports of electronic vote counting fraud have been widely reported over the past several years by both liberal and conservative sources, as have the security flaws of such electronic voting machines. In the absence of a paper trail, auditing any such suspect elections becomes impossible.
DRE security flaws are particularly concerning. For instance, most voting machines run Windows XP, which has not had a new security patch issued since 2014, and also lack other safeguards that could prevent manipulation, such as data encryption. In addition, voting machines can be hacked in a matter of minutes at negligible cost, resulting in the undetectable manipulation of entire elections. As computer security experts at Symantec told CBS News last year, “for $15 and in-depth knowledge of the card, you could hack the vote.” As a result, some states have begun phasing DREs out, but they are still used to a significant degree.
Concerns have also been raised regarding the manufacturers of the voting machines themselves, several of whom have close ties to top politicians or partisan figures. For instance, in 2012, Forbes noted that an investment firm run by Mitt Romney’s son had close ties to a prominent company manufacturing electronic voting machines. During last year’s election, it emerged that another prominent voting company, Dominion Voting Systems, had held a $2.25 million charity initiative with the Clinton Foundation two years prior, causing some to decry a potential conflict of interest.
The voting machine company Smartmatic International, with machines in 16 states, is chaired by Mark Malloch-Brown, a member of the board of the George Soros-run Open Society Foundations and former vice chairman of Soros’ Investment Funds. Soros has been frequently accused of “meddling” in domestic political affairs as well as those of other nations.
In addition, in the 2016 election, there was evidence of such vote counting fraud taking place during the Democratic primary. An article published in Counterpunch last year noted that hundreds of voting districts throughout the U.S. were using voting machines that had repeatedly failed security tests. It also noted that these same districts showed Hillary Clinton substantially outperforming her opponent Bernie Sanders, relative to other districts and despite substantial exit poll-vote count disparities in which the vote counts shifted in Clinton’s favor relative to the exit poll results.
It must be noted that while much attention has recently been paid to the security issues with paperless DREs, even when voter-marked paper ballots are instead scanned and verification is theoretically possible, U.S. elections are hardly secure from vote counting interference and fraud. Many states have no provision for audits and the audit protocols currently enacted by most other states are too weak to detect or deter vote-count manipulations in close races. Recounts, as witnessed in the aftermath of the 2016 election, can be shut down by legal action or made prohibitively expensive and thus thwarted. And exit polls have long been written off as simply “wrong” for some reason when they depart substantially from reported vote-counts.
Stubbornly and purposefully spitting at the wrong spot
Given that about 70% of states use some form of electronic voting, much of it paperless — and given that about 98% of votes, including those cast on paper, are counted by computer — the commission’s failure to raise concern about this issue gravely undermines its stated mission. Despite the evidence that this fraud directly threatens election integrity and played a role in the outcome of the 2016 primaries and perhaps again in November, Trump’s electoral fraud commission has instead chosen to focus on the apparent red herring of voter fraud.
Nearly six months later, its examination of voter rolls and its investigation into “non-citizens” voting has turned up nothing, despite the fact that the commission’s members assert that this type of fraud is a widespread practice. Driven by an agenda to put more restrictive voting laws in place, the commission is quickly proving that the personal missions of its members — and what appears to be an unwritten, politically motivated charter — are its focus, not repairing the “integrity” of the U.S. election process.
Top photo | Sign outside the room for the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, where President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will attend, Wednesday, July 19, 2017, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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