Trump’s Threat to Investigate American Voters Is a Danger to Democracy
President Donald Trump’s threats to launch another investigation into baseless claims of widespread voter fraud is another assault on American democracy and our constitutional rights.
Rather than spending millions of tax-payers’ dollars on an investigation into fake claims of voter fraud, the Trump administration and fellow Republican officials should focus their attention on the real threats to the integrity of U.S. elections: voter suppression that keeps Americans from having their voices heard at the polls and Russian interference that undermines our national sovereignty and security. Instead of responding to these present dangers, Trump repeats baseless slander and calls for a witch hunt against his fellow Americans.
Trump is apparently preoccupied with losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. He is reported to have opened his first meeting with congressional leaders with wild claims of millions of votes cast illegally and, according to The New York Times, a story about “voters who did not look as if they should be allowed to vote.” These voters, the president speculated, were from Latin American countries.
There are additional reasons for concern that free, fair, and accessible elections are not valued in this administration. Steve Bannon, now chief White House strategist, once suggested reverting back to a system where the right to vote is reserved only for property owners. When it was brought to his attention that African Americans would be disproportionately affected by such a system, Bannon responded, “Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”
Trump’s is not the first administration to over-politicize the issue of voter fraud. The George W. Bush administration conducted a five-year investigation that “turned up virtually no evidence” of fraudulent voting. The administration’s firing of several U.S. attorneys is said to have been based in large part on “the attorneys’ refusal to pursue voter fraud cases, a top issue for Republicans.” The purge caused such scandal that then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned.
In an interview with David Muir on ABC News this week, Trump cited a report that contained data on voters who were registered in more than one state as evidence of voter fraud. (When Muir responded that the author had told him that the data show no evidence of voter fraud, Trump was clearly taken aback and attacked the credibility and intentions of the report’s author.)
Being registered to vote in more than one state, however, is not a crime unless the person is not eligible to be registered to vote and lied on the form. Simply holding registration in more than one state is certainly not the same as casting a vote in two states in the same election. Indeed, in Trump’s own administration, his nominee for secretary of the treasury, Steven Mnuchin, and one of his top advisors, Steve Bannon, are both registered to vote in more than one state. Trump’s daughter, Tiffany, is also registered in more than one state; the Trump administration, however, denies this repeatedly reported fact.
While groundless claims of widespread voter fraud have long been used as the basis for voter suppression at the state level, it has not yet been taken up aggressively at the federal level. That seems likely to change. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), for example, has already once introduced a bill allowing states to require proof of citizenship, such as a passport or birth certificate, prior to registering to vote in federal elections. Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former member of the Federal Election Commission, has recommended that the Trump administration “direct the Department of Homeland Security to cooperate with states that want to verify the citizenship of registered voters.” These failed policies fall disproportionately on communities of color and are a recipe for stripping American citizens of their political power and voices at the polls.
The myth of voter fraud leads to attacks on voters
Voter fraud conspiracies have been used across the country in order to pass strict photo ID laws and other measures that make it harder for eligible Americans to vote. Lawmakers in Texas used this very strategy to pass their state’s strict voter ID law, known as S.B. 14. In 2016, the Fifth Circuit found the law to be discriminatory and struck it down. Republican legislators in North Carolina raised similar false claims before passing their state’s voter suppression law, which included a strict voter ID requirement. That law, too, was struck down after a federal court ruled that it impacted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” The courts in both cases, and many more, have found voter fraud to be statistically nonexistent and the burdens on American citizens—particularly people of color—to be considerable and, in many cases, insurmountable.
Conservatives may claim that strict photo ID laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud but, as more than one court has found, their “true motivation” is more often to prevent certain groups—namely people of color, students, and low-income Americans—from exercising their right to vote. And in many cases, these lawmakers have been successful in doing so. In the last election, for example, 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin—9 percent of registered voters—lacked the strict forms of photo ID needed to vote. In places like Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s African American population lives, voter turnout decreased by 13 percent.
At other times, charges of voter fraud are employed as a political strategy to manipulate the democratic process. In 2011, worried that Wisconsin Republicans would lose an important judicial race, one state GOP operative asked his colleagues whether they should “start messaging ‘widespread reports of election fraud’ so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number.? [sic] I obviously think we should.”
Voter fraud remains a baseless claim
The fact of the matter is that allegations of widespread voter fraud have no basis in fact or reality. Of the more than 137.7 million ballots cast in November’s election, “election and law enforcement officials in 26 states and the District of Columbia—Democratic-leaning, Republican-leaning and in-between—said that so far they knew of no credible allegations of fraudulent voting.” In another eight states, officials could point to just one allegation.
Numerous other studies have debunked charges of widespread voter fraud. A Brennan Center for Justice report conducted in 2007 found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually the result of clerical errors or errors that occur in “matching voter rolls against each other or against some other source.” In its review of past elections for fraudulent double voting, the report found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.000009 percent in some states, with zero substantiated claims in others. According to the report, “voter fraud is more rare than death by lightning.”
A comprehensive study published by The Washington Post in 2014 found only 31 credible instances of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014. The actual number is likely to be even smaller, since the author of that study included any credible claim, not just prosecutions or convictions. Two studies done at Arizona State University, one in 2012 and another in 2016, reached similar conclusions that voter fraud is vanishingly rare. The 2012 study found only 10 cases of voter impersonation fraud nationwide during the 12-year span between 2000 and 2012. The 2016 follow-up study, found zero successful prosecutions for voter impersonation fraud in five states from 2012 to 2016. That study looked specifically at states where politicians have claimed that voter fraud is a serious problem, including Arizona, Ohio, Georgia, Texas, and Kansas.
The National Association of Secretaries of State, for its part, has said it is “not aware of any evidence that supports the voter fraud claims made by President Trump.” Ohio Secretary of State John Husted, a Republican, tweeted, “We conducted a review 4 years ago in Ohio & already have a statewide review of 2016 election underway. Easy to vote, hard to cheat.” Following the 2016 election, Trump’s own lawyer filed a legal complaint in Pennsylvania stating, “There is no evidence—or even an allegation—that any tampering with Pennsylvania’s voting systems actually occurred.”
Indeed, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has concurred: “There’s no evidence of that and I think those who allege that have to come up with some substantiation of the claim.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) similarly told CNN, “I would urge the President to knock this off; this is the greatest democracy on Earth, we’re the leader of the free world, and people are going to start doubting you as a person if you keep making accusations against our electoral system without justification.”
For months, Trump attacked the American election system with empty rhetoric; his administration cannot be trusted to investigate the 2016 election with any integrity. Already, the administration suggested it would focus on large urban areas where support for President Trump was low during the election. Regarding the alleged fraudulent votes, the president has said, “Of those votes cast, none of them come to me. … They would all be for the other side.” There is no reason to believe any investigation led by an administration that embraces “alternative facts” will be conducted in a fair and impartial manner. In fact, it is a clear and present danger to democracy that the administration would specifically investigate votes cast in communities it has deemed to be political opponents.
Senior Judge Damon Keith of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a dissenting opinion seeking to protect the rights of African Americans and all eligible Americans to vote: “Democracies die behind closed doors.” With Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)—who has a history of persecuting voting rights activists in communities of color, and who referred to the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive”—nominated to head up the U.S. Department of Justice, and court vacancies likely to be filled with conservative judges who may support strict voter ID laws, the responsibility to protect voting rights has been thrust upon the shoulders of ordinary Americans. Americans must not be swindled into believing lies about voter fraud so that conservatives can “roll back the progress of history” to pass suppressive voting measures. Instead, politicians must be held accountable when they make false claims about the prevalence of voter fraud or seek to introduce legislation that would make it harder to vote.
In a country where nearly 93 million eligible Americans did not vote in the 2016 presidential election, government officials should be investigating how to make the nation’s electoral process more inclusive, rather than searching for ways to place additional burdens on eligible Americans’ access to the polls. Instead of engaging in a witch-hunt to persecute American voters, government officials should dedicate resources to conducting a major investigation into Russian meddling, which was actually found to target our elections. And in the face of voter suppression that cost Americans their voices at the polls last year, Congress should consider ways to strengthen voting rights and ensure voter access, such as by investing in America’s election infrastructure, modernizing registration systems, and restoring the Voting Rights Act. States can take steps to keep their voting lists up-to-date with programs such as the Electronic Registration Information Center and Automatic Voter Registration. Through these programs, state agencies exchange information with each other to update voter rolls and add eligible voters to the rolls in ways that protect the right to vote and facilitate voter access.
It has been said that voting “is the most valuable right a person possesses, because without it, all other rights are meaningless.” Americans cannot allow Trump and his fellow Republican officials to close the doors of our democracy.
Liz Kennedy is the Director of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress. Danielle Root is the Voting Rights Manager for the Democracy and Government team at American Progress.
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Former Director, Voting Rights and Access to Justice