Voter ID

Trump's Election Fraud Fantasies and Public Policy

New presidential election integrity advisory commission might actually help despite the delusions on which it is based.


Yulia Gapeenko/Dreamstime

By now, we have all learned that President Trump never backs down or takes anything back. He lives in his own version of reality and alternative facts. Rather than try to disabuse their boss of his delusions, his minions scramble to bolster them. One result of the president's repeated insistence that there was massive voter fraud during the 2016 election is that he issued a Presidential Executive Order on the Establishment of Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity a week ago.

The new bipartisan commission will be chaired by Vice-President Mike Pence. The vice chair of the commission is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. A long time advocate of stricter voting regulations, Kobach finally obtained in April his first conviction of a non-citizen who illegally voted in a Kansas election. This franchise felon was a caught when his earlier voter registration was uncovered when he signed up to vote at his naturalization ceremony. The Kansas City Star noted that 1,788,673 people are registered to vote in Kansas. The franchise is safe in the Sunflower State!

So on what delusions is the new commission based?

"Fourteen percent of non-citizens are registered to vote," claimed Donald Trump during a presidential campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio in October, 2016. White House press secretary Sean Spicer backed his boss' claim up on January 24, 2017 asserting, "There's one (study) that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens." On January 23, 2017, President Trump told Congressional leaders that between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes causing him to lose the popular vote. Is there any evidence for such widespread election fraud? No.

First, Spicer was both garbling and mischaracterizing the results of two different studies in his remarks. There was a 2008 Pew study that focused on the sloppiness of voter registration records, but did not say anything about voter fraud. "We found millions of out of date registration records due to people moving or dying, but found no evidence that voter fraud resulted," declared David Becker the author of the Pew study.

So what about the claim that 14 percent of non-citizens are registered to vote? That figure was derived from a 2014 study, "Do non-citizens vote in U.S. Elections?," published in the journal Election Studies. The figure was derived from trying to parse the replies of a survey sample of 828 non-citizens out of 88,200 respondents who checked a box saying they were registered to vote.

In a 2014 article for the Washington Post, one of the study's authors reported that perhaps 51 of those non-citizens who checked the box saying they were registered also checked a box saying they had voted. That's 51 people out of 88,200 who were surveyed. No one ever makes a mistake checking survey boxes, do they?

The researchers who actually ran the survey from which the data were taken in the 2014 Election Studies analysis challenged those results in 2015, arguing that it's very hard to reliably discern real trends based on such a small sample size. "The results, we show, are completely accounted for by very low frequency measurement error; further, the likely percent of non-citizen voters in recent US elections is 0," they concluded. Check out FiveThirtyEight for a nice and thorough analysis of how the initial non-citizen voting article went wrong.

In any case, the new electoral integrity advisory commission is charged with identifying "those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that enhance [or undermine] the American people's confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections."

What sort of laws and rules does the President think would enhance voter confidence? "If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised," Donald Trump told The Washington Post on August 2 last year. "The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times." In an August campaign speech, Trump strongly backed North Carolina's strict voter ID law.

Trump's insinuations about a rigged election were triggered by a Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling a month earlier that had struck down the state's new voter ID laws. The court overruled North Carolina's new laws requiring, among other things, specific types of photo identification, a rollback of early voting to 10 days from 17, and the elimination of same-day registration amounted to unconstitutional restrictions on the franchise. In its decision, the court noted that the state's new voter ID restrictions "target African Americans with almost surgical precision" and that the new rules were clearly motivated by "discriminatory intent" of the Republican majorities in the state legislature to suppress voting by minority groups they feared were more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider overturning the appeals court ruling.

Most of the evidence shows that voter impersonation fraud is extremely rare, so it is not unreasonable to conclude that the proponents of strict voter ID rules may have some other motives for wanting to impose such regulations on the franchise. Contrary to the suspect aims of proponents, most research finds that imposing strict voter ID requirements end up suppressing white, Latino, and black voting about the same amount. Interestingly, a new study in Political Research Quarterly by University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientists finds that "early voting generally helps Republicans." In other words, efforts to rollback early voting actually suppress Republican voters.

While we are on the subject of voting regulations, it is worth considering the results of a recent working paper that looked at the electoral effects of denying ex-felons access to the franchise. It is generally assumed that felony disenfranchisement hurts Democratic candidates in elections, thus helping Republican candidates. For example, Republican legislators in Virginia motivated by just such fears tried unsuccessfully to block Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe's broad restoration of the voting rights to ex-felons in 2016. In their working paper, the researchers find that had the franchise been restored to the one in forty adult U.S. citizens who have lost their right to vote as a result of a felony conviction, no House of Representative majority would have been reversed in any year between 1998 and 2012, had all states allowed ex-felons to vote.

Finally, even if in the face of the evidence to the contrary the president and his underlings nevertheless believe that voter fraud is prevalent, the new presidential advisory commission is largely redundant. As a result of the 2000 presidential election Florida fiasco, Congress established in 2002 the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The EAC is an independent, bipartisan commission created to help states promulgate voting standards and improve election administration. It is a ready-made venue for studying and addressing concerns about voter fraud. For example, the EAC's 2006 Election Crimes report could be updated. Perplexingly, the House Administration Committee voted in February to terminate the EAC.

As the mischaracterized 2008 Pew Research study on the problems of properly maintaining voter rolls makes clear, there certainly are areas in which the policy and procedures of U.S. elections can be greatly improved. Perhaps the new election integrity commission will make progress in that regard despite the delusional bases on which it is founded. One can hope.