Update 3 July 10pm Pacific: Maryland Deputy Secretary of State Luis Borunda has resigned.
The Trump commission on election “integrity” made headlines last week when it sent letters to all 50 states asking for private voter data. Missed in that flurry: most commission members are not election officials and collectively they do not reflect the country, either geographically or demographically. And some members have zero elections background.
After winning the Electoral College vote in November, president-elect Donald Trump tweeted that “millions of people” had “voted illegally,” denying him the popular vote win. Shortly after his inauguration, he told us, via Twitter, that he would launch an investigation into voter fraud.
In February, March and April, the president and White House advisors repeated and elaborated upon this claim. Finally, in May the president established an advisory committee on election integrity via executive order.
The executive order provides the mission for the commission:
The Commission shall, consistent with applicable law, study the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections (emphasis added).
At the end of June, the commission asked states for their voter registration rolls, along with non-public personally identifiable data, but nada on state laws, regulations and processes or specifics related to federal elections. Most elections are local or state contests and measures.
Members of the commission
- Chair, vice president Mike Pence, former governor of IN (R)
- Vice-chair, Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach (R)
- Election Assistance Commissioner Christy McCormick (R)
- Arkansas lobbyist and former state lawmaker David Dunn (D)
- Indiana secretary of state Connie Lawson (R)
- Maine secretary of state Matt Dunlap (D)
- Maryland deputy secretary of state Luis Borunda (R)
- New Hampshire secretary of state Bill Gardner (D)
- West Virginia Wood County clerk Mark Rhodes (D)
- Former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell (R)
- Heritage Foundation pundit Hans von Spakovsky (R)
The Baltimore Sun reports that Borunda notified the Hogan Administration Monday that he had resigned from the commission.
There are no state elections directors on the commission. The state elections directors (pdf) for the four states with active officials on the commission follow:
- Indiana: Brad King, Co-Director Indiana Election Division
- Maine: Julie L. Flynn, Deputy Secretary of State
- Maryland: Linda Lamone, Administrator of Elections, State Board of Elections
- New Hampshire: Anthony Stevens, Assistant Secretary of State
Although the US voting system is highly decentralized, there is only one county official on the commission.
According to news reports, two of the most recent three members (Dunn and Rhodes) learned about their appointment via news release.
The commission is not demographically diverse.
Of the eight states represented on the commission:*
- Seven have white populations that exceed the national average
- Six have black populations that are less than the national average
- All eight have hispanic populations that are less than the national average
- Five have bachelor degree populations less than the national average
- Six have median household incomes less than the national average
- Six have per capita incomes that are less than the national average
- Four have poverty rates that are less than the national average
- Only one state ranks in the top 10 in population; four are in the bottom 16.
* McCormick and von Spakovsky work in DC and are not included here; neither is an elections official for the District of Columbia, Maryland or Virginia. Pence’s home state, Indiana, is represented by the secretary of state. See the table at the bottom of this article for details.
The commission is not geographically diverse.
There is no representative from the American west. Yet a quarter of the U.S. population lives in states demarcated by the Rockies.
Three of the four states represented by Democratic elections officials (AR, ME, NH, WV) rank in the bottom quarter of U.S. states by population; all rank in the bottom third. One of those representatives is from a county, not a state. The county ranks 651st in population.
Chasing a non-existent problem
The commission has been criticized for chasing a problem that researchers have shown does not exist: voter fraud.
A study of allegations of voter fraud from 2000 to 2014 found only 31 “credible allegations” of voter impersonation out of 1 billion ballots cast.
Researchers from the Brennan Center for Justice interviewed elections administrators, from 42 jurisdictions, who conducted the 2016 election.
“Improper noncitizen votes accounted for 0.0001% of the 2016 votes [23.5 million] in those jurisdictions.”
In California, New Hampshire, and Virginia – states called out specifically by Trump – “no official … identified an incident of noncitizen voting in 2016.”
In Washington, the Asotin County (Clarkston) prosecutor charged two men with voter fraud related to the 2016 election. One signed his widow’s name on her ballot envelope. He thought power of attorney extends to voting; it does not. The other voted in both Washington and Idaho.
Voters cast 3,363,440 ballots in Washington in 2016. Those two cases represent 0.00006% of the ballots cast.
Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) has criticized the commission as a “fraud.”
“For over a decade,” Kander said, “the Republican Party has made it a central part of their political strategy to push the myth of widespread voter fraud … when the real problem they’re trying to solve is there are certain groups of Americans who are unlikely to vote Republican.”
After the contentious 2000 election (Bush-Gore, Florida’s hanging chads), the Miller Center at the University of Virginia assembled a commission to analyze existing voting systems and make recommendations. One result was the Help America Vote Act (HAVA, 2002) and the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). A big (and bad) unintended consequence of the post 2000 flurry: a lot of computerized voting machinery went out into the states, machines that did not provide a paper copy of the ballot as a reviewable/recountable receipt.
Other problems with the Commission
1. Experience, voter suppression history
Some members of the commission have no elections experience or a record of voter suppression:
- Blackwell (R): while Ohio SOS in 2004, Blackwell tried to reject voter registration forms, prevent absentee voters from voting if they had not received a ballot in the mail, provided inaccurate information about voting status to former felons, and put a speedbump in front of those attempting to vote with provisional ballots.
- Borunda (R): in Maryland, elections are managed through the state board of elections, not the secretary of state’s office.
- Dunn (D): a lobbyist who once served in the Arkansas state legislature, Dunn told the HuffPo that “he did not have any expertise in elections or voting issues.”
- Pence (R): former governor of Indiana; the governor’s office does not oversee elections affairs; the secretary of state does that. And the Indiana secretary of state is on the commission.
- Rhodes (D): represents a small county in a small state.
- von Spokavsky (R): king of the “voter fraud brain trust.” While at the Bush DOJ, he “pushed for Georgia to be granted pre-clearance for a new voter ID law that was later declared unconstitutional, and shut down an investigation into a policy in Minnesota that prohibited Native Americans living on reservations from using tribal ID cards as voter identification.”
And then there’s Kobach, a polarizing figure for a variety of reasons:
- He wrote Arizona’s strict “show me your papers” immigration law, which the state tabled in September 2016.
- In 2011, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed a strict voter ID law which was architected by Kobach. Courts have overruled Kobach’s efforts.
- Kobach has pushed states to demand proof of citizenship, such as a passport or a birth certificate, before allowing people to register to vote. Just before the November 2016 election, five courts overturned these laws in five states – KS, NC, ND, TX, WI.
- Last year Kobach defended, in federal district court, the new executive director of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) Brian D. Newby, a former colleague of Kobach’s. Newby had unilaterally altered instructions on the federal voting registration form for Alabama, Georgia and Kansas, requiring proof of citizenship before being able to register to vote. The Department of Justice sided with the plaintiffs in the case, an act that led the the judge to remark: “Unprecedented. I’ve never heard of it in all my years as a lawyer.”Kobach told the judge that Newby made the voting-form change upon his request. On September 9, 2016, the D.C. Circuit Court prohibited the EAC from changing the federal voter registration form in a preliminary decision. On June 1, the EAC told the court that they were split along partisan lines over whether the executive director acted within his authority. Therefore the preliminary September 2016 injunction stands.
2. The commission isn’t complete and hasn’t met, but Kobach is acting on its behalf.
The letter that went out on June 28 over Kobach’s signature was not endorsed by commission members, who yet to met in person.
The executive order calls for up to 15 members; only 10 have been named. There is no Senate confirmation needed, as this is an advisory group to the president.
3. The commission mission has no mandate to review active voter registrations.
Sec. 3. Mission. The Commission shall, consistent with applicable law, study the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections. The Commission shall be solely advisory and shall submit a report to the President that identifies the following:
(a) those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections;
(b) those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that undermine the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections; and
(c) those vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.
Kobach’s letter asked for voter registration rolls. Nothing about “laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices.”
And if the goal of the request was to compare voter registrations for duplicates across states: (1) that’s not illegal and (2) members of the Trump family were doxxed for this after Trump asserted that it was illegal.
Moreover, there are two interstate voter registration matching programs, ERIC and Crosscheck. Fifteen states use ERIC, 30 states use Crosscheck, and six states use both programs.
4. Fraudulent voter registration is also rare.
Intentional voting by those ineligible is rare, but errors in voter rolls do happen.
Brennan researchers noted that those paid to gather voter registrations may not warn non-citizens that they are ineligible. Systems that register voters concurrently with obtaining a driver license may have confusing “opt out” processes.
However, local and state elections officials have processes in place to identify any irregularities.
For example, in 2007, King County Elections staff spotted signatures on multiple voter registration forms that appeared to have been written by the same hand. The subsequent investigation led prosecutors in King and Pierce Counties to file charges against seven people for turning in fake voter registration forms. No votes were cast by the phony voters. The seven were paid per registration (monetary incentive).
A similar case happened in Indiana in the 2016 election. As in Washington, these fraudulent voter registration forms were flagged at the local elections level.
The flaws are rampant, providing ample ammunition for those who criticize the commission as a witch hunt or an attempt to rollback voter rights. It’s unnecessary (studying a non-existent problem that is touted as a GOP talking point). It’s headed by a man whose efforts are being overturned by the courts, at great expense to taxpayers around the country. It’s stacked against minority voters.
Perhaps the reason the commission is so lopsided is that ethical elections officials are loath to provide a veneer of legitimacy.
The history of voting in the United States is not punctuated by voter fraud – people voting who shouldn’t.
The history of voting in the United States is punctuated by voter suppression: preventing people from voting. From our origins — when only landed men were able to vote — to Jim Crow; from refusal (or impediments) to reinstate voting rights of felons who have served their time to modern scaremongering that disenfranchises Hispanic voters.
Many military and overseas citizens are disenfranchised because of logistical problems in transmitting ballots. Although the HAVA requires states to issue provisional ballots, states are not uniform in how they process them (or when they require one).
I’d like to see these voting-related recommendations, which are unlikely to come from this commission as constructed:
- All states move to vote by mail, reducing costs and improving both security (all those computers in the field that have to be stored and transported) and accuracy (assured paper trail) while improving access and eliminating the need for “early voting” polling stations (although there is a need for accessible voting centers).
- Uniform voter registration deadlines, including day-of registration
- Uniform political party declarations for federal offices
- Top-two primary for all partisan races
- Ranked voting
- Tightened requirements on releasing voter registration information
- All states adopt whatever is the most flexible system for military/overseas voters currently in place
Comparison of commission demographics
Data are from the US Census
|U.S. (all)||323,127,513||White alone: 76.9%
Black alone: 13.3%
Foreign-born persons: 13.2%
Bachelor’s degree: 29.8%
Median HH income: $53,889
Per capita income: $28,930
Persons in poverty: 13.5%
|White alone: 79.4%
Black alone: 15.7%
Foreign-born persons: 4.7%
Bachelor’s degree: 21.1%
Median HH income: $41,371
Per capita income: $22,798
Persons in poverty: 19.1%
|White alone: 85.6%
Black alone: 9.7%
Foreign-born persons: 4.8%
Bachelor’s degree: 24.1%
Median HH income: $49,255
Per capita income: $25,346
Persons in poverty: 14.5%
|White alone: 86.6%
Black alone: 6.2%
Foreign-born persons: 6.9%
Bachelor’s degree: 31.0%
Median HH income: $52,205
Per capita income: $27,706
Persons in poverty: 13.0%
|White alone: 59.3%
Black alone: 30.7%
Foreign-born persons: 14.5%
Bachelor’s degree: 37.9%
Median HH income: $74,551
Per capita income: $36,897
Persons in poverty: 9.7%
|White alone: 94.8%
Black alone: 1.5%
Foreign-born persons: 3.5%
Bachelor’s degree: 29.0%
Median HH income: $49,331
Per capita income: $27,655
Persons in poverty: 13.4%
|White alone: 93.8%
Black alone: 1.5%
Foreign-born persons: 5.7%
Bachelor’s degree: 34.9%
Median HH income: $66,779
Per capita income: $34,362
Persons in poverty: 8.2%
|White alone: 82.5%
Black alone: 12.8%
Foreign-born persons: 4.1%
Bachelor’s degree: 26.1%
Median HH income: $49,429
Per capita income: $26,953
Persons in poverty: 14.8%
|White alone: 93.6%
Black alone: 3.6%
Foreign-born persons: 1.5%
Bachelor’s degree: 19.2%
Median HH income: $41,751
Per capita income: $23,450
Persons in poverty: 17.9%
 Western states: AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT, NV, NM, OR, UT, WA, WY