It’s hard to imagine how Kris Kobach could have screwed things up so badly.
Here is a man, seemingly hatched from an underground lab devoted entirely to perfecting the fine art of vote suppression, given a golden opportunity to suppress votes nationally by way of Donald Trump’s sore loser–based election “integrity” commission.
Here is a man who has pledged the better part of his legal career to ensuring that fewer people can vote and to treating any and all immigrants—documented or otherwise—like criminals. Here is a man, in short, who had a meeting with destiny.
As Kobach put it to Ari Berman last month, his whole master plan for world dominion was so simple: to create in Kansas—where he is running for governor and has been secretary of state for a number of years—a template for programmatic vote suppression nationwide. If he created “the absolute best legal framework,” other states and the federal government would follow. Somehow, though, Trump’s “election integrity” commission turned into one of the most colossal cockups in an administration already overflowing with them.
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Less than two weeks after its attempts to extract voter information from every state, including birth dates, voting histories, and the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers, the commission has been stymied by varying degrees of resistance in almost every state. In addition, lawsuits have ground the commission’s work to a halt. One filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and another by the American Civil Liberties Union alleged violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires notice of public meetings and open public records surrounding such a federal commission. Yet another by the Electronic Privacy Information Center sought a restraining order and alleged that the panel had violated the 2002 E-Government Act by not undertaking a required privacy impact assessment of its request.
Things came to a head on Monday when Andrew Kossack, the panel’s designated officer, formally told the states to basically stop doing what 44 of them were already refusing to do anyhow. Kossack advised state elections officials that “until the Judge rules on the [Temporary Restraining Order], we request that you hold on submitting any data.”
Had the rollout of this enterprise been choreographed by Laurel and Hardy, it couldn’t have involved more banana peels. For instance, there was the time Kobach sent his request to state officials who don’t actually oversee elections. Then Kobach himself had to admit that—speaking as the voter official representing Kansas—his own state couldn’t even comply with the original requests. Oh, and the original letter demanded that data be sent via email to an unsecured server. Then Kobach contradicted himself about whether the documents received by the committee would be made public. Then there was Kobach’s potential violation of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from directly supporting candidates.
So what happened? How is it possible that the blue-ribbon supposedly bipartisan commission that Kobach co-chairs with Vice President Mike Pence forgot to do basic homework and paperwork—not to mention forgetting to find servers to store data—before sending out letters to state officials asking for all that private information? It looks and sounds a lot like the rollout of the first travel ban, all thunderclaps and mayhem without a shred of decent lawyering. But this wasn’t a Steve Bannon special; this was supposed to be a terrifying effort at mass vote suppression done by experts in mass vote suppression.
The rollout speaks to a certain ethos in Trump’s Washington: He doesn’t bring in experts who seek to effectuate change within legal parameters. He brings in kooks and nihilists who don’t care about how things get done—or even if they get done. The end game is just to break stuff. Don’t forget that the Justice Department is steaming ahead with its own under-the-radar efforts to suppress the vote nationwide. Whether the Kobach commission gets its part of the job done is immaterial.
The thing is that the incompetence of Trump’s outsider cadre seems to be spreading to the ultimate insiders, such as Kobach and Pence, who is himself an expert in voter suppression. These two could have set up a machinery that actually functioned. But they acted sloppily and recklessly. One can’t help but wonder, to what end? Don’t they even want to suppress the vote?
In the end this all might simply come back to Bannon’s break-the-regulatory-state chaotic approach to government. The success of Kobach’s panel will ultimately lie in fomenting fear and uncertainty about the elections system. Consider the widespread reports this week of voters unregistering in response to the commission’s information requests. That is, as one Colorado official puts it, a win for the commission. Think about the endless messaging from Trump and Pence suggesting that states that refuse to turn over their data must have something to hide. Also a win for the commission. Consider member Ken Blackwell’s unfalsifiable claim that “we don’t know what we don’t know” about voter fraud. Good point, Ken! Even when the commission is losing, it’s winning. Everyone’s information is vulnerable and hackable! Better just to stay home. The whole purpose of this enterprise is to sow doubt and fear among voters about several states’ voting apparatuses. If the data is manipulated to suggest vote fraud—even if said vote fraud doesn’t really exist—Kobach wins. If there is no data but everyone has lost confidence in the integrity of the American elections system, well, guess what? Also a win. So very, very much winning. Why call it a commission when you can just call it the yawning maw of destruction?
It no longer makes sense to look at this administration through a binary lens of evil geniuses versus hapless imbeciles. Generally competent people can behave stupidly when the end game is fomenting mistrust in the basic facts and institutions that surround democracy. Destabilizing and undermining the idea that voting in America matters, especially against the backdrop of an election in which foreign interference might actually have had an influence on the outcome, is all to the good. Think back on the pathetic rollout of the travel ban, the witless legal defenses, and the serial losses at the courts of appeals. It wouldn’t have been hard to get that right either. The depressing answer is that nobody in this administration cares to get anything right. Getting it wrong and shattering confidence in the wheels and levers of democracy is its own reward.