[Editor's Note: This story has been updated below to provide links to podcasts of Pearson Cross' "Bayou to Beltway" program on KRVS featuring interviews with Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler and Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret.]
On May 11, President Donald Trump issued an executive order establishing the “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.” This commission was principally created to pursue Trump’s claim that fraudulent ballots cost him the popular vote in the 2016 election. If true, such a claim would be deeply troubling, given that Hillary Clinton was reported to have won the popular vote by 2.87 million. Yet, Trump’s claim of voter fraud is a canard, as is his Commission on Election Integrity. Any number of scholarly studies have shown voter fraud to be extraordinarily rare. What the creation of this commission does reveal, however, is the cynical use to which a “fact-finding” body may be put by an administration determined to arrive at a particular conclusion, however unjustified. It also illuminates how the Trump administration works, generally speaking.
Here are the Trump administration rules: keep promises, no matter how rash; address issues of little real importance but of high public sensitivity; increase the public’s fear of the future and mistrust of government; take actions that disguise your true intentions; and finally, maintain, or when opportunities present themselves, extend your power. For those paying attention, Trump’s farcically misnamed Commission on Election Integrity promises to illustrate each of these rules.
First, the creation of the commission fulfills a promise made to Trump’s supporters. It was not so long ago that Trump referred to the 2016 presidential election itself as “rigged.” Second, the commission’s conclusions were telegraphed with the selection of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has long perpetuated Trump’s dubious vote-fraud claims, as commissioner. Does anyone doubt that a commission on voting integrity that is led by someone who believes the few cases of illegal registration on record are only the “tip of the iceberg” will fail to conclude, as Kobach has already announced, that “substantial numbers of noncitizens [are] getting on our voter rolls.” (Wines, Bosman, New York Times, May 14, 2017).
Third, the commission tilts at windmills. Criminal voting fraud has been shown to be extremely rare here in Louisiana and across the United States. As Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, recently appearing on Bayou to Beltway (KRVS 88.7), pointed out, “…the election system has never been better … we do it as good as anybody else” (Nov. 23, 2016). Seconding Schedler’s view was Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret, who said “…it would be almost impossible in Louisiana for someone to steal an election” (Feb. 1, 2017). Thus, the Integrity Commission is a sham, tackling a problem that doesn’t exist.
Fourth, the commission fuels what Americans already fear about their political institutions. Currently, just “26 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans say they can trust the federal government just about always or most of the time” (Pew Research, “Trust in Government, 1958-2015”). This lack of trust limits the effectiveness of government and makes passing meaningful legislation and working across the partisan divide especially difficult.
Last, the deceitful search for voter fraud prevents recognition of what is truly scandalous about elections today: low voter participation. Voter turnout is already perilously low and efforts to undercut public confidence in our electoral institutions will only decrease it further. A focus on illegally cast votes also disguises who benefits from a smaller turnout. Some strategists in the GOP have decided that reducing the size of the electorate — by making it harder for minorities, poor people, women and other groups to vote — will result in more Republicans getting elected. This strategy was clear in Kansas, where just nine cases of voter fraud have been detected since 2015 but a court found that “restrictive registration requirements [have] denied more than 18,000 Kansans their constitutional right to cast ballots” (Wines, Bosman, 2017).
Cynical efforts to reduce turnout have helped Republicans take control of the legislatures in several states and worked for that party nationally as well. This effort has been aided by the prejudicial effects of racial redistricting, where black and Democratic voters have been shoved into districts that diminish their clout. The audacity of these efforts was made clear last month when the Supreme Court decided that efforts by the Republican legislative majority in North Carolina to limit minority voting were so blatantly transparent that even Clarence Thomas, the bane of voting rights advocates everywhere, joined the majority in striking them down.
Yet, without limiting the size of the electorate, the Republican coalition of religious voters, older voters, rural voters, white male voters and voters without a college degree cannot hope to retain power, thus the rationale for the creation of the Kris Kobach-led Commission on Election Integrity. It requires no Cassandra to foretell that a Kobach-led commission will find evidence of “significant” or “widespread” voter fraud regardless of what the “research” reveals. As the Kansas City Star Editorial Board caustically opined after Kobach had won his ninth conviction for voter fraud, “Keep this up, sir, and you may yet prove that of the 1.8 million registered voters in [Kansas], the number of those who have perpetrated this crime is in the double digits.” The only fraud Kobach is likely to uncover in this expensive taxpayer-funded goose chase is himself.
Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at [email protected]