Winning wasn’t enough for Donald Trump. His triumph in the U.S. Electoral College made him the 45th president, but he couldn’t accept that Democrat Hillary Clinton captured more total votes. Trump claimed fraud on the order of 3 million to 5 million ballots and created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which was to report back on "improper" or "fraudulent" activity. Skeptics sensed an effort to make it harder to register and vote. The commission’s first action, a broad request for information, drew acid responses from some states, which Trump cited in disbanding the panel on Wednesday.
1. What did the commission want?
In a June 28 letter to states and the District of Columbia, the panel’s de facto leader, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, requested, if "publicly available under the laws of your state," the names, birth dates, addresses, political affiliations, felony convictions, military service records and final four digits of Social Security numbers of registered voters, along with which elections they voted in since 2006. The letter also invited opinions on ways to improve the integrity of federal elections, plus information about voter fraud and "convictions for election-related crimes" since 2000.
2. What would the commission have done with all that data?
That wasn’t clear. Kobach said in May 2017 that the commission was hoping to provide a credible estimate of the "scope of provable voter fraud." In Kansas, he helped create a multistate database of voter registration with the goal of catching voters who try to cast ballots in more than one state; he could have looked to replicate that on a wider scale.
3. What was wrong with that?
Critics said the data request was a fishing expedition -- for dead people on the voter rolls, non-citizens who cast ballots -- that would help justify a crackdown on voting. Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine, predicted Kobach and others would call for a rollback of the 1993 "motor voter" law, which required states to make registering to vote easier by offering it to people renewing their driver’s license or applying for government services.
4. How did states respond to the panel’s request?
Unenthusiastically. Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, like Trump a Republican, said residents of his state "should celebrate Independence Day and our state’s right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes." There was widespread agreement that some requested data points, especially Social Security numbers, were beyond the pale. Then there were the lawsuits, more than half a dozen, challenging the commission on grounds of privacy, open-government laws and, in the case of one suit by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the suppression of minority voters. The commission halted its data-collection efforts on July 10.
5. How big a problem is voter fraud?
The partisan battle lines are firmly drawn. Trump claims he wouldn’t have lost to Clinton if not for "millions of people who voted illegally." Though nobody says U.S. elections are completely immune from improper voting, widespread fraud at the scale Trump has suggested lacks substantiation. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice, analyzing information from jurisdictions with the highest populations of non-citizens, found that of 23.5 million votes cast, election officials referred about 30 incidents of suspected non-citizen voting for investigation or prosecution. The Heritage Foundation, which considers voting fraud a more serious problem, has counted 848 criminal convictions for voting fraud from the 1980s to present.
6. Where do Trump’s allegations come from?
The notion that 3 million or more votes were cast by non-citizens was put forth a week after the November 2016 election in Twitter posts by Gregg Phillips, a conservative activist who was little-known until Trump tweeted his claim. Phillips hasn’t produced any evidence to back it up. Trump and his first press secretary, Sean Spicer, also cited a 2014 study published in the journal Electoral Studies and a 2012 report by the Pew Center on the States. But authors of both reports challenged how the Trump White House presented their findings.
7. Why did the commission answer to Trump personally?
Unlike, say, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (an independent government office that Republicans would like to close), or the 9/11 Commission (created and appointed jointly by President George W. Bush and Congress), the voter-integrity commission was created by Trump in a May 11 executive order. Trump appointed all 12 members.
8. Was the commission viewed as credible?
Not in some quarters. Some of Trump’s appointees "have a record of making exaggerated and/or baseless claims about voter fraud, and/or have implemented or supported policies that have unlawfully disenfranchised voters," the ACLU said in a lawsuit. Kobach introduced new citizenship-documentation requirements for Kansans wishing to register to vote. Other members of the committee include Hans von Spakovsky, a longtime advocate for stricter voter identification laws, and Ken Blackwell, former Ohio Secretary of State, who drew criticism in 2004 for rejecting votes made on paper he said was not the correct weight.
The Reference Shelf
- An interactive look at the results of the 2016 election.
- Kobach’s multistate database reportedly found over five million potential matches, although there’s been speculation that the system has a propensity to flag a lot of false positives.
- A Brennan Center for Justice graphic of state-by-state responses to the commission’s request for voter data.
- Trump’s commission is a fraudulent response to a real issue, a Bloomberg View editorial argued.
- A QuickTake explainer on voting rights.
— With assistance by Andrew M Harris