Last night, in an unexpected announcement, President Donald Trump dissolved his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which had been assembled in March to add investigatory heft to the president's factually ludicrous claim that between three million and five million people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The commission, operationally managed by vice chair Kris Kobach, who as Kansas Secretary of State has emerged as the nation's leading elected voter-fraud conspiracist, had been riddled from the start by a lack of transparency, brazen attempts to create a national voter database out of compelled state data, and lawsuits from its own members. Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin spells out in detail how its demise marks "a victory for federalism."
But not quite a victory for rationality. The White House's brief statement begins with the defiant sentence, "Despite substantial evidence of voter fraud, many states have refused to provide the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity with basic information relevant to its inquiry." This even though Kovach, in his capacity as the official in charge of overseeing elections in Kansas, has prosecuted just nine illegal voters, eight of whom (according to Mother Jones) "were citizens who voted in two different states, and most of them were over 60 years old, owned property in both places, and were confused about voting requirements."
The president this morning made a Kinsley gaffe in his tweetsplanation of the decision:
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.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2018
When the purpose of your commission is to root out a partisan conception of voter fraud, rather than the titular and theoretically bipartisan goal of election integrity, choosing a hack like Kobach makes sense. An advisory body seeking to live up to its actual name would better be composed of officials and specialists with respect on both sides of the aisle (and hopefully among those many on the outside of the two-party system), while focusing on all aspects of potential integrity violations, not just the most popular claim on one side.
So does this mark the end of the administration's exertions on the issue? No. Trump "has asked the Department of Homeland Security to review its initial findings and determine next courses of action," whatever that means. And his habit of foregrounding partisan electoral math in personnel and policy decisions involving nonpartisan bodies has also taken expression in the potentially influential location of…the Census Bureau.
The Department of Justice last month officially requested that the Census Bureau include in its decennial questionnaire for the first time since 1950 whether respondents are citizens of the United States, arguing that the information is necessary "to fully enforce" the Voting Rights Act. (The bureau does ask about citizenship in its annual American Community Survey, which is conducted on a sample basis, and has little comparative impact.) "This is a recipe for sabotaging the census," Arturo Vargas, a member of the Census Bureau's National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations, alleged to ProPublica.
Critics warn that the question, coupled with the Trump administration's increased deportations (and threats thereof) of illegal immigrants, will lead to an undercounting of households, neighborhoods, and populations with higher proportions of undocumented residents. This in turn would change the composition of the House of Representatives, and the way legislative districts are drawn. One way to assuage such suspicions would be to appoint a 2020 Census overseer with an academic and/or civil-service pedigree far removed from the scrum of bare-knuckle politics. President Trump, according to six weeks of reporting, has chosen a second path.
Trump's pick for deputy director (and operational executive) of the Census Bureau is reportedly set to be Thomas Brunell, author of the 2008 book, Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America. Brunell's main professional focus vis-à-vis measuring populations has been to argue on behalf of the Republican Party that legislative districts be drawn up to more heavily concentrate partisan and ethnic/racial groupings. Mother Jones takes a jaundiced tour through Brunell's work, and outraged reactions to his appointment, here, including:
Democrats in Congress have also raised concerns about Brunell's appointment. (The deputy director position does not require Senate confirmation.) "Dr. Brunell has neither the managerial experience nor the non-partisan reputation to fill this position," Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on December 21. (The Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department.) "The appointment of Dr. Brunell would be a significant departure from past practices and would further undermine the Census Bureau's efforts to increase public trust in the Census. It would also raise questions about the Administration's intent to comply with the constitutionally mandated requirement to complete an accurate count of the U.S. population."
It is naïve to expect the administration of politics, and the selection of political appointments, to be nonpolitical. It's also frequently inaccurate to assume a lack of partisan lean among purportedly apolitical experts in this field or that. But as we continue this mini-era of two-party polarization and distrust (even as many individuals opt-out of that binary), it's appropriate to be on heightened alert when any administration, at any level of government, prioritizes the concerns and advocates from one side of the vote-counting wars while making policies that affect all of us.