President Trump once again sought to raise suspicions about virtually nonexistent U.S. voter fraud on Saturday, wondering aloud in a tweet what “numerous” states were “trying to hide” by not agreeing to share registered voters’ personal information with the voter-fraud commission Trump ordered shortly after becoming president. Trump, as both a candidate and president, has repeatedly sought to spread the falsehood that the U.S. election system suffers from widespread voter fraud. As president, Trump has repeatedly promoted, without supporting evidence, the far-right conspiracy theory that millions of votes in the 2016 presidential election were cast illegally — a theory Trump purports to believe is the reason he lost the popular vote. Then in May, Trump formed the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity both to investigate his unfounded claims and, more likely, to advance a radical agenda of voting-rights restrictions.
On Friday, more than 30 states wholly or partially refused to comply with the commission’s unprecedented requests for voter-file data, which included asking for the names, birthdates, voting histories, party identifications, and last four digits of the Social Security numbers of registered voters in each state. Though state governments controlled by Democrats were the most pronounced in their rejections of the request, plenty of Republicans expressed anxiety or skepticism as well. For instance, Mississippi’s Republican secretary of State, citing privacy and states’ rights concerns, said that his response to such a request would be to tell the commission they could “jump in the Gulf of Mexico.” No matter what, the commission won’t get all that data: some states have laws that prevent them from releasing specific information about voters, while some state leaders cited their objections the commission itself as a reason, and other states have said they will only release information to the commission which is already publicly available. Politico also points out that states amassing and sending voter data to the White House carries an enormous cybersecurity risk, and that it’s not clear the commission even understands that, based on how they asked states to submit the information.
With his tweet on Saturday, President Trump, who may or may not understand the principles of federalism or state laws, implied that more than half of the states in the country were involved in some kind of conspiracy to hide evidence of voter fraud. Such a notion is clearly absurd, and yet it should also be seen as a natural progression of the president’s circular thinking. First, Trump has been parroting far-right ideas about voter fraud since at least 2012. Eventually, during his presidential campaign, he often warned that there was some kind of nefarious, multifaceted scheme in place that sought to deny him his rightful victory on Election Day. Assuming that end, Trump also repeatedly indicated that he would not accept the outcome of the election if he lost, and when he did lose the popular vote, that is exactly what he went on to do. Now, he’s back to expanding the conspiracy, only this time he’s alleging that state governments are in on it, too.
Of course, it’s possible that Trump doesn’t believe such a conspiracy and is just trying to pressure states into submission by using his bully pulpit to make them seem shady. It’s also possible that Trump is simply aping the vice-chair of the commission, Kansas secretary of State Kris Kobach, who himself got the “what are they hiding” rhetoric going on Friday despite the fact that Kansas is one of the states with a law that prevents it from fully complying with the data request. Indeed, if Trump’s new accusation is part of a larger strategy — to the extent that there is ever a method to Trump’s madness on Twitter — that strategy is likely Kobach’s. Since there is no widespread voter fraud in the U.S., as studies and state governments have already confirmed, voting-rights advocates and Democrats are concerned that Kobach and Trump’s commission instead will be used for voter suppression, and that would very much be in line with Kobach’s previous efforts. As law professor and election-law expert Joshua Douglas argues at CNN, Kobach’s obvious plan for the data is to use it to peddle theories of fraud and “use evidence of voter registration anomalies to promote strict voting rules that make it harder for some people to vote”:
[E]lection data experts — notably lacking on this commission — know that simply comparing large lists of voters will not provide useful information because of the number of false matches. The well-known “Birthday Problem” shows that it is somewhat likely that two people with the same common name — say, John Smith — will also share a birthday. The fact that two different state voter rolls might list this same name is not evidence of voter fraud.
Yet those who peddle the rampant voter fraud canard have been looking for evidence to support their theories, all in an effort to justify ever-stricter voting laws. They cannot find any widespread voter fraud, so they use issues of bloated voter registration rolls as their evidence. But that proves nothing beyond the reality that states need a better way to update their voter rolls.
Trump may not have a master plan (or may just be grasping at theories to bolster his ego), but Kobach does, as Ari Berman explained in a recent New York Times Magazine profile:
Kobach’s plans [for voting restrictions] represent a radical reordering of American priorities. They would help preserve Republican majorities. But they could also reduce the size and influence of the country’s nonwhite population. For years, Republicans have used racially coded appeals to white voters as a means to win elections. Kobach has inverted the priorities, using elections, and advocating voting restrictions that make it easier for Republicans to win them, as the vehicle for implementing policies that protect the interests and aims of a shrinking white majority. This has made him one of the leading intellectual architects of a new nativist movement that is rapidly gaining influence not just in the United States but across the globe.
For all the focus on whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence last year’s presidential election, it’s important to remember that Russia’s interference was not only about helping Trump and/or damaging Hillary Clinton; it was also an attack meant to destabilize America’s democracy. The Trump campaign might not have colluded with Russia with that goal in mind, but the Trump administration is seeking a similar end through different means.