“Election Fraud is rampant!! California has 11 Counties that have MORE VOTERS than registered voters!!” reads one of the most recent public comments submitted to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. “I have personally witnessed voter fraud in California,” reads another comment. An earlier comment claims that “many [voters] were deceased and many were not citizens.” Yet another post is from a former San Diego poll watcher who claims to have witnessed attempted voter fraud and was told by an elections official: “if someone wants to vote I am not about to stop them. This is America, not China!” Over 500 comments were submitted online during the run-up to the second meeting of the commission on Tuesday, which was led by its vice-chair Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Many of those comments were in the same vein as those from the San Diego poll watcher, containing anecdotes or hearsay about egregious incidents of voter fraud or alleging massive levels of fraud on a national level. While those public comments weren’t directly addressed during the proceedings of the meeting, they did help set its tone, as Kobach and his fellow commissioners grappled with the gap between rhetoric on voter fraud—backed by ample anecdote—and data on in-person voter fraud, which are scant.
The meeting started with a presentation from Andrew Smith, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, that addressed data challenges in studying voter behavior, elections laws, and turnout. His presentation raised questions about how to interpret elections data and registration data (especially when multiple databases with different population denominators are in use), and the problems with correlating voter-ID policies with decreases in turnout. Smith’s warnings about the fuzziness of elections data made sense, but his data on turnout conflicted with some of the findings of the Government Accountability Office, which found that three of five studies to meet its standard of rigor showed that voter-ID laws specifically decreased turnout of people of color relative to whites.
The opening discussion of data, turnout, and policy mattered deeply to the commission, which was chartered by President Trump in May, and has been dogged by allegations that its true purpose is not eliminating voter fraud, but instigating voter suppression. The argument in favor of the legitimacy of the commission has been weakened by the tendency of Trump and Kobach to commit the logical fallacy of begging the question: They have invoked unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in order to argue for the necessity of a commission to prove that voter fraud exists. And that commission so far—while ostensibly still waiting to analyze numbers from a controversial set of voter data gathered from the states—has simultaneously argued in favor of measures to fight voter fraud, like voter ID, while also arguing that policies to do so won’t suppress votes.