More than 100 days into the Trump presidency, Democrats still take bitter solace from Hillary Clinton’s three-million-vote victory in the popular vote. Having witnessed a similar scenario with Al Gore’s popular vote victory over George W. Bush, organizations like FairVote, Common Cause, and others are intensifying calls to replace the Electoral College with direct national elections.
But President Trump, instead of claiming his Electoral College victory and moving on, has a far different preoccupation: He insists that he is the real winner of the popular vote—when we disregard the three to five million “illegals” he says voted. His claim is not grounded in fact; election experts have repeated said that voter fraud is extremely rare.
This claim might easily be ignored as just another of the President’s colorful, evidence-free assertions, but for his recently hatched, taxpayer-funded, ironically named Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. While Americans across the political spectrum might welcome a commission that helps election supervisors keep their records updated, facilitates citizen participation, or protects against hacking, this is a horse of a different color, and choosing as co-chair Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach—the infamous King of Voter Suppression—speaks volumes. Kobach has been called the “most racist politician in America” and is the architect of voter restrictions that a federal court struck down after a finding that it would unconstitutionally disenfranchise 18,000 Kansans.
What Is Voter Suppression? Designed to suppress turnout for racial, hyper-partisan, or other illicit reasons, voter suppression takes various forms. It can mean erecting obstacles to registration, like nearly insurmountable bureaucratic labyrinths for ex-offenders and others. Or reducing the number of early voting sites and eliminating early voting on days traditionally used by African American churches to organize trips to the polls. Or imposing cumbersome and unnecessary voter ID requirements to disenfranchise marginalized groups. Or—don’t laugh—by canceling the registration of voters with names similar to those of registered voters in other states. (This is a tactic advocated by Kris Kobach.)
Republican-controlled state legislatures have been enthusiastically employing these maneuvers. In North Carolina, they were used to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist,” according to the 4th Circuit panel that struck down the law. But in a major victory for civil and voting rights advocates, the Supreme Court has declined to overturn the 4th District’s decision. Don’t celebrate too soon, however: Federal court findings of racial gerrymandering in North Carolina’s congressional and legislative districts are under still appeal.
Glimmers of Hope: There are other glimmers of hope, too. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker had proposed eliminating all six election commission positions that had been funded by a soon-to-expire grant under the Help America Vote Act, enacted in 2002. In a partial victory for the electorate, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee (which replaced a previous bipartisan board) reinstated five of the six positions and reduced the daily payments to members of the elections and ethics commissioners from $454 to $227, rather than to the paltry $50 the governor had proposed. Although Wisconsin’s situation is not as bad as it might have been, as the state’s Democrats point out, a fully functioning voting system is crucial to our democracy and needs full funding. Wisconsin badly needs to show a real commitment to voting rights: In 2014, a federal court struck down a law that required a form of ID that an estimated 300,000 Wisconsinites lacked. Many of those potential voters may have been turned off from the election process. In 2016 Donald Trump won Wisconsin by 27,000 votes.
And in Illinois, the state senate approval has just moved a step closer to enacting universal registration of eligible voters, which would put the state in line with seven other states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia.
Causes for Concern: In Texas, voting rights advocates recently celebrated a federal court decision striking down Texas’s voter ID requirements, which were among the most onerous in the country. The finding that the law intentionally discriminated against minorities was particularly telling: Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department joined in alleging that the law was designed for that very purpose. In stark contrast, under the Trump administration, the Justice Department withdrew this element of its case. Apparently allergic to unbiased election procedures, the Trump administration nonetheless will spend taxpayer funds on his phony “Commission on Election Integrity” and continue to feed the narrative that too many people—the wrong kind of people—are voting.
Although the wave of voter suppression tactics was already underway, 14 states put new restrictions in place for the 2016 elections. Donald Trump carried 12 of them—Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The remaining two—New Hampshire and Rhode Island—had just eight Electoral College votes between them, hardly enough to hold back the tsunami of voter suppression tactics.
As the American electorate experiences the confusion caused by constantly changing restrictions and the sense of futility caused by such structural impediments to democracy as gerrymandering, it’s small wonder that the United States has one of the lowest rates of election participation in the developed world. In the topsy-turvy world of the Donald J. Trump presidency, voter suppression is not a travesty to address but a victory to celebrate: “They didn’t come out. And that was big — so thank you to the African American community,” Trump crowed.
It’s hard to know whether Trump believes he won the Electoral College vote fairly or his absurd assertions about millions of illegally cast ballots. In any case, his ego-driven delusions strengthen the hands of racists and others who wish to suppress turn-out and dampen our democracy.
And now we have the Trump-created, Kobach-chaired “Commission on Election Integrity.”
Should we be worried? Yes. Bigly.
Gail Gottlieb, Chair
Election Reform/Voting Rights Task Force