WASHINGTON – It is neither paranoid nor alarmist to begin asking if the Trump administration plans to rationalize blocking a large number of voters who oppose the president from casting ballots in 2018 and 2020. And it is imperative that the civic-minded of all parties demand the disbanding of a government commission whose very existence is based on a lie.
The lying doesn’t stop. Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, is vice chairman of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Its name reminds us why the adjective “Orwellian” was invented. Kobach chose to use a meeting of the commission held in New Hampshire on Tuesday to continue to cast doubt on the state’s election results even after his charges of voter fraud had fallen apart.
It was an object lesson into how Trumpists will twist, cook and distort facts about voting to manufacture numbers that sound ominous but vanish into the ether as soon as they’re examined.
That Kobach had initially made his case on Breitbart, the right-wing website, is a sign that the man in charge of what is supposed to be a sober inquiry is simply a propagandist. (Vice President Pence is the nominal chair of the commission, but he has a few other things to do.)
Here’s how Kobach confected his Breitbart tale. New Hampshire allows would-be voters to register on Election Day. Kobach noted that 6,540 same-day registrants used out-of-state driver’s licenses to verify their identity.
This is perfectly legal under New Hampshire law, but Kobach’s “aha!” moment was to reveal that “ten months after the election” (the damning italics are his), only 1,227 of the 6,540 had either obtained New Hampshire driver’s licenses or registered a vehicle. Ergo, Kobach concluded of the remainder, “It seems that they never were bona fide residents of the state.”
And then he took several more leaps. First he labeled the 5,313 as “fraudulent votes.” Then he noted that Democrat Maggie Hassan defeated then-incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte by 1,017 votes. His explosive claim: If 59.2 percent or more of these fake voters went for Hassan, “the election was stolen through voter fraud.” Yes, he wrote “stolen.”
Kobach pegged Hillary Clinton’s margin over Donald Trump in the state at 2,732, so by his reckoning, she could have been put over the top if 74.8 percent of these alleged fraudsters went her way.
It all sounds nice and scientific. Here’s the problem: Backed by other election law specialists, New Hampshire’s Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democratic member of the commission, noted that Kobach simply ignored what the state’s election law actually says. It allows voting by those “domiciled” in the state – people who spend most of their nights in New Hampshire – and not just “residents.” Yes, they can vote even if they have driver’s licenses from other states.
This category includes college students, and New Hampshire Public Radio found that the highest rates of voting using out-of-state IDs occurred in college towns.
So Kobach’s charges of fraud are themselves fraudulent, but he can’t seem to admit outright that he was simply wrong. Instead, sounding like a novelist, he said at the commission meeting on Tuesday that he might not have found “the right word” to describe the situation. He asked plaintively “if it’s possible to condense a complex legal issue into an 800-word column.”
Such after-the-fact humility doesn’t explain his willingness to shoot first and check the facts later, or why he was still questioning the 2016 result. Absent more data, he said, “we will never know the answer regarding the legitimacy of this particular election.”
But we do know the answer. It was legitimate. We also know the answer to the question about the existence of in-person voter fraud: There is almost none of it. This is true despite Trump’s groundless post-election claim that 3 million to 5 million illegal votes were cast in 2016. When he could not produce a shred of evidence, he named a commission that would concoct some.
We should, indeed, be discussing ways of making our elections much better. We could build on the 2014 report from a genuinely bipartisan commission led by two battle-hardened election lawyers, Republican Ben Ginsberg and Democrat Bob Bauer.
Kobach’s commission, however, is just looking for ways to justify new barriers to voting by groups (those students, for example) not inclined to support Trump, and it doesn’t care what the facts are.
We do not need an official government body whose job is to spin fictional horror stories.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.