President Trump’s election integrity commission didn’t get far before it was mired in controversy. State officials from around the country refused to comply with requests for detailed information on voters, and on Wednesday, after nearly a year of conflict and litigation, the president finally disbanded the commission. “Many mostly Democrat States refused to hand over data from the 2016 Election to the Commission On Voter Fraud. They fought hard that the Commission not see their records or methods because they know that many people are voting illegally. System is rigged, must go to Voter I.D.,” Trump wrote on Twitter. He followed that with a plea asking Americans to “Push hard for Voter Identification” because “you need identification, sometimes in a very strong and accurate form, for almost everything you do.”
Compared to his most transgressive behavior, Trump’s claim that he lost the popular vote because of 3 million illegal votes is less worrisome than his social media brinksmanship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un or his routine turns to racial demagoguery. By the standards of presidential conduct, however, it’s absurd. But that absurdity shouldn’t obscure the extent to which Trump is echoing a set of ideas and beliefs that have wide currency throughout the Republican Party, and which are certain to resurface in his administration.
In explaining his decision to end the election integrity commission, Trump essentially said the quiet part out loud with regards to why he—and other Republicans—are so committed to voter identification. These laws are designed as barriers to voting, meant to reduce the share of Democratic voters in the electorate, a goal that has an especially heavy impact on historically disenfranchised groups like black Americans. Indeed, this wasn’t the first time Trump has said as much. During one interview with ABC News, he said that these alleged illegal votes were exclusively for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. It was a laughable charge, albeit one with presidential power behind it.
Which is how we got the commission for election integrity, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence but vice chaired—and effectively led—by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach’s effort to assemble the data for a national voter file was in all likelihood an attempt to construct a version of the Interstate Crosscheck System, an anti–voter fraud program designed by Kobach and run by the state of Kansas. Crosscheck works by comparing voter registration files submitted by participating states, and marking potential duplicates, which are associated with fraud. The problem is this process produces a huge number of false positives, making it an active threat to legitimate voters. One analysis found that Crosscheck “would eliminate about 200 registrations used to cast legitimate votes for every one registration used to cast a double vote,” making it a tool for voter purges more than one for voter integrity.
Suspicious of Kobach and protective of sensitive data, state election officials from both parties refused his request for voter information. “The president created his election commission based on the false notion that ‘voter fraud’ is a widespread issue—it is not,” said Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat. “Kentucky will not aid a commission that is at best a waste of taxpayer money and at worst an attempt to legitimize voter suppression efforts across the country.” Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, was even more blunt: “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”
With little cooperation from states and intense scrutiny from voting rights advocates, Trump’s commission was paralyzed, rendering it useless as a tool for voter suppression. But the failure of this national attempt at erecting new barriers to voting shouldn’t obscure the ongoing Republican-led efforts at the state level to do the same, with real consequences for voter participation. Republican legislatures in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Ohio have enacted strict ID requirements, closed polling places in predominantly black and Latino areas, and purged huge numbers of people from the voting rolls. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, lawmakers in 31 states introduced 99 bills to restrict access to voting and registration in 2017.
As for national efforts to do the same, President Trump still has one major avenue for depriving Democratic-voting constituencies of representation and power: the census, which will be conducted in 2020. Census data is used to calculate representation in Congress as well as drive formulas for allocating resources. Unfortunately for equity and fairness, President Trump’s pick to lead the census, Thomas Brunell, has defended unconstitutional racial gerrymandering and voter suppression by Republican lawmakers in Virginia and North Carolina.
Which means this fight will continue long after the election integrity commission is forgotten. Elected Republicans are still hostile to measures that expand access and enthusiastic about those that restrict it. The election integrity commission was a farce, but the Republican Party’s commitment to suppressing voter participation is very real.