WASHINGTON President Donald Trump had some remarkable things to say at the inaugural meeting of his Commission to Promote Voter Suppression and Justify Trump’s False Claims, which is formally known as the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. He also asked a question that deserves an answer.
Lest anyone believe Vice President Pence’s claim that “this commission has no preconceived notions or preordained results,” Trump was on hand last week to state clearly what its agenda is. Remember that in January, Trump told congressional leaders that between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes were cast in last year’s election and that they were the reason he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.9 million.
There is not a shred of evidence for this – none, zero, zilch. Trump’s defenders could find no plausible way to support his statement, which is not unusual. But Trump never backs off from a falsehood. So instead, he did something without precedent: He appointed a presidential commission solely to justify an offhand lie. And now that this body exists, it will almost certainly try to find ways to rationalize purging legitimate voters from the rolls and erecting yet more barriers to voting.
Trump would not let the commissioners forget their reason for being there, his belief that those phantom votes really exist, although he put his own words into the mouths of unnamed “people,” who – surprise! – came to the same conclusions he did.
“Throughout the campaign and even after it,” Trump said, “people would come up to me and express their concerns about voter inconsistencies and irregularities, which they saw. In some cases, having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states.”
The commission issued a sweeping request to the states for data that included everything from voters’ Social Security numbers, military status and party affiliation to information on felony convictions.
Trump purported to be pleased because “more than 30 states have already agreed to share the information with the commission.” In truth, the request has been met with widespread resistance from Republican as well as Democratic officials. As of July 8, the Associated Press reported not a single state was in full compliance. The Republican secretary of state of Mississippi, Delbert Hosemann, spoke for many of his colleagues (with a regional twist) when he told the administration to “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Trump is not happy, and he responded in the way he knows best: with innuendo questioning the motives of others. “If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they’re worried about. And I asked the vice president, I asked the commission: What are they worried about?”
Excellent question. Here’s what we should worry about.
We should worry about the security of the data. States have absolutely no confidence that the Trump administration will protect it. They also have every reason to fear Trump will misuse it. We should worry because his commission is the furthest thing imaginable from a dispassionate investigation into voting procedures.
We should worry because Kris Kobach, Kansas’s secretary of state, is vice chairman of the commission. Kobach is a voter suppression fanatic. He is also a Trump flunkie. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, who is doing an excellent job covering this charade, noted that when NBC’s Katy Tur asked him about the 3 million to 5 million fraudulent vote claim, Kobach replied: “We will probably never know the answer to that question.” Sorry, but we do know, and if Kobach thinks we don’t, not a single state should trust him with a single bit of information.
We should worry because, as Ari Berman noted in The Nation, a new study by MIT found that 12 percent of the electorate in 2016 encountered a problem voting, and the Brennan Center reported that more states have enacted new voting restrictions in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined. This commission will push states to enact even more laws like these.
We should worry because the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and this Congress has shown no signs of wanting to fix it. We should worry about the Trump administration closing civil rights offices and the Justice Department switching sides in voting rights cases. As Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said: “I am old enough to remember when African Americans were denied access to the ballot box, and I fear that we are watching history repeat itself.”
We should worry that Elijah Cummings’ intuition is right.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.