The Trump presidency is opening up a new battlefront in the intense and controversial war over American voting rights. After a decade of wrangling between Democrats who have sought to expand voting opportunities and Republicans who have invoked the specter of voter fraud to restrict them, the focus is now on purging registration lists – even at the risk of kicking large numbers of eligible voters off the rolls. Both Trump’s justice department and his newly formed Presidential Commission on Election Integrity are involved in broad data collection and new policy proposals to “clean up” the voter rolls in ways that critics fear will have a disproportionate impact on blacks, Latinos and newly naturalized citizens. The justice department (DoJ) has also begun issuing legal opinions to support states that have passed restrictive new voting rules, even when they appear to contradict existing federal law. Voting rights activists say these efforts are kicking voter suppression into a higher gear at a time when federal courts are ruling that a flurry of strict new voter ID laws in several Republican-run states discriminate against minority voters and college students.
“There are three major aspects of the voting process – getting registered, making sure you stay registered, and actually voting – and in all three areas we are seeing efforts to suppress the vote,” said Ezra Rosenberg, a voting rights specialist with the Lawyer’s Committee on Human Rights Under Law.
The commission, chaired by vice-president Mike Pence but spearheaded by its vice-chair, Kris Kobach, an ardent champion of repressive voting laws in his native Kansas, has made few public declarations of intent except to ask states in late June for exhaustive information on individual voters. The move led to immediate pushback from the states and from a former Department of Homeland Security chief who said the information could pose a cybersecurity threat.
… To counter the mainstream studies dismissing many of Kobach’s assertions, his supporters have begun generating a research trail of their own. One rightwing thinktank called the Government Accountability Institute (cofounded by Steve Bannon with money from Robert and Rebekah Mercer) recently turned to data companies using questionable fuzzy matching to postulate the existence of more than 8,000 double voters in the 2016 election. (Only a handful of instances of actual double-voting have emerged, on a statistically insignificant scale.)
The study was then cited in an essay for the conservative National Review by Hans von Spakovsky, another member of the presidential commission and a longtime advocate of voter purge lists – including a notorious one he helped craft in Florida that was found by one county to be 95% inaccurate.