The nation faces some very real problems with its election system. Not enough people care to vote, for beginners. And many of those who do care find themselves barred through burdensome voter-ID laws or have the power of their votes diluted through race-based gerrymandering. Voting machines in many jurisdictions around the nation are outdated, and lines at polling places can stretch discouragingly long.
But here’s what isn’t a problem, fortunately: out-and-out voter fraud, in which people intentionally register in multiple jurisdictions in hopes of casting more than one ballot, or who register to vote despite knowing they are ineligible to do so.
A report by the non-partisan Brennan Center found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are “traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices.” The report “reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent.”
So what issue does President Trump zero in on in his new Commission on Election Integrity? Voter fraud, of course. And in doing so, he advances a proven myth while ignoring real, Republican-driven restrictions on access to the polls.
That makes the new commission of a piece with Trump’s other efforts to undermine the core institutions of American democracy. Not only is the news fake in Trump’s dystopian democracy, so too are the voters who voted for his opponent. And the judges who ruled against his cockamamie executive order on immigration. And the ex-head of the F.B.I., who was fired on spurious grounds after pressing an investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian interference in last year’s election.
What is behind these anti-democratic moves? Leaks from the White House disclose a president obsessed with his public image, and who lashes out at aides when news coverage churns beyond his control — the spasms of a wannabe autocrat who lacks respect for the rule of law and the institutions that keep the country running.
Presidents often create commissions, but rarely with the kind of cynicism that Trump displays here. He has selected Vice President Mike Pence as chair and reportedly has selected as vice chair Kansas’ controversial secretary of state, Kris Kobach, who believes all voters should have to provide proof of citizenship — a birth certificate or passport — before voting. Studies and court rulings have found such requirement disproportionately burden low-income people and minorities.
Clearly, a sober and detached assessment of the voting system is the last thing Trump is looking for. Rather, he hopes to find excuses for his failure to win the popular vote in November (a loss he blamed at the time on “millions of people who voted illegally”). And in the process, he will inflate a non-existent problem into a threat, presumably as a prelude to policies aimed at suppressing votes by people more likely to support Democrats than Republicans. That could well be the greatest peril that Trump poses to the nation — hijacking democracy by stealing the fundamental right to vote from people who have few other options for making their voices heard.