Lost in the chaos of the political firestorm that has dominated our news cycles recently have been several important stories about voting. Last week, news broke that Trump would be creating a panel to look into the supposedly widespread problem of voter fraud. And this morning, the Supreme Court announced that it would not be hearing an appeal from North Carolina Republicans of a lower court's decision striking down the state's own restrictive voting laws. Both of these incidents are hugely important, so let's step back from Trump, Russia, and Comey for a moment to look at what all of it means.
First off, let's talk about "voter fraud." It's a topic that Donald Trump loves to discuss. Before the election, then-candidate Trump repeatedly stated that, if he were to lose in November, it would be due to widespread voter fraud perpetuated by Democrats and illegal aliens. After his upset victory, Trump then repeatedly claimed that the only reason he didn't win the popular vote (which he lost by about 3 million) along with the electoral college was due to millions of illegal votes being cast, all of which went against him. As is often the case when something comes out of the president's mouth, this allegation was not supported by any evidence.
Trump's basis for many of his comments was a study that supposedly showed a massive 14% of non-citizens being registered to vote. The fact that the paper didn't actually claim that and was actually not even a study on voter fraud didn't prevent him from repeatedly misrepresenting this data. (The folks over at FiveThirtyEight did an excellent piece on that survey last week, breaking it down and discussing what it actually says).
The reality is that "voter fraud" in the sense that is commonly talked about by Republicans, meaning people either voting repeatedly, voting while not being registered (or even being a citizen), or using the identifying information of the deceased to vote, is a complete non-factor in American elections. In the immediate aftermath of 2016, there were only four confirmed cases of this type of voter fraud, with the majority actually being Trump supporters. As states completed their electoral postmortems in the ensuing months, they continued to find little evidence of fraudulent activity.
And yet despite the complete dearth of evidence for widespread voter fraud in American elections, Republicans continue to cry foul. States under Republican control continue to try and institute harsh voting restrictions, including mandating photo identification, cutting back on early voting, and eliminating polling places in minority and Democratic districts. All in the name of "electoral integrity."
You don't have to look very far to see that the real reason behind these laws isn't "electoral integrity." Instead, it's all about electoral advantage. Let's look at Wisconsin, a state Donald Trump surprisingly won by less than 23,000 votes. This is a state that has in recent years implemented some of the most restrictive anti-voting laws in the country. 91,000 fewer people voted in Wisconsin last November, including 41,000 fewer in heavily Democratic Milwaukee. Was that all because of the voter ID law? Almost certainly not. After all, the liberal base wasn't exactly fired up about their choice of candidate. But if even half of those folks in Milwaukee didn't vote because they didn't have the right ID or were unable to make it to their polling place, that would have been enough to swing the state.
Now Republicans will say that voter ID laws aren't a big deal. After all, how hard is it to obtain a photo ID? But read some of the stories at the link above to see how much trouble this requirement caused for folks in Wisconsin. At best, obtaining an ID means having all of your personal documentation in order, going to a DMV or state office during business hours, and paying a fee. If you're someone like me, who has his birth certificate in a file cabinet at his house and holds a solid nine-to-five job with paid vacation and personal days, it's a minor inconvenience at worst.
But what if you're working multiple jobs to make ends meet? Or you don't have a car? Or your family situation means you don't have your birth certificate? Getting an ID involves losing paid hours at work to obtain the necessary paperwork from the government, sitting in line at the DMV, and hoping you don't get told you're missing something or that you actually need to be at the office 15 miles away. For millions of Americans living at or below the poverty level, getting an ID isn't a minor inconvenience at all; it could mean a choice between being able to vote and having a secure job and enough money to put food on the table for their families. And that's really no choice at all.
Republicans in legislatures across the country know this, and they know the people most likely to have trouble getting an ID tend to vote against them. And so they go out of their way to make it harder and harder for those citizens to be counted at the polls. Look at the North Carolina law mentioned above, which was passed shortly after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act a few years ago. The appeals court that struck it down found that the law was blatantly discriminatory against minorities; specifically, they commented that it targeted black voters with "surgical precision." It "retained only those types of photo ID disproportionately held by whites and excluded those disproportionately held by African-Americans." It cut back on early voting, which is disproportionately used by minority and poor voters, including eliminating one of the two "souls to the polls" Sundays that are hugely popular in black communities.
It is this type of blatant disenfranchising that should be the focus of any "electoral integrity" panels. But instead, Trump's new commission with be run by Mike Pence and Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, one of the chief architects of the restrictive voting laws being put in place across the country. This is a guy who has been sued by the ACLU four times because of his discriminatory voter suppression strategies. In every case, Kobach's schemes were found by the courts to be unconstitutional. If he had his way, the "motor voter" laws that allow so many to easily register to vote would be gutted, and voter ID would be the law of the land. That cannot be allowed to happen.
We like to call America the greatest democracy in the world. But being a great democracy means ensuring that our elections are fully representative of the electorate. Instead, Donald Trump and the Republican party are trying to ensure that, as our country becomes more diverse, the electorate looks more and more like them. In many parts of the country, they are already succeeding. It is our responsibility to stand up for the rights of the disenfranchised and to work to make voting easier, not harder. If we don't protect the right to vote and ensure that every citizen can be counted, defending our other rights becomes impossible.