On Wednesday, Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission held its first public meeting, allowing each participant to voice his or her utterly unjustified belief that fraudulent voting is a rampant problem in the United States. (The commission has already held a private meeting that may have violated federal law.) During his remarks, Kris Kobach—Kansas’ Republican secretary of state and vice chairman of the commission—asserted that more than 18,000 noncitizens may have registered to vote in Kansas. He also alleged that the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which compares states’ voter rolls, has uncovered “literally millions of people” who are registered in at least two states. Both of these claims are completely false.
Let’s start with the Kansas lie. When running for secretary of state in 2010, Kobach repeatedly insisted that voter fraud in the state, particularly noncitizen voting, was “pervasive” and “massive.” Then–Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh—a Republican who served in that position for 16 years—responded that “the voter fraud Kris Kobach speaks of does not exist.” Researchers found that, over the previous decade, the government had uncovered just seven instances of unlawful voting in Kansas, none of which involved noncitizens. Yet Kobach persisted, as this crude nativism was central to his campaign. A week before the election, he said he’d found a smoking gun: A deceased man named Alfred K. Brewer, Kobach claimed, had likely cast a vote in the August primary.
Reporters found Brewer in his yard, alive. “I don’t think this is heaven, not when I’m raking leaves,” he explained. Kobach had confused Brewer with his father, who was deceased, and who had not cast a vote since he’d shuffled off this mortal coil.
These embarrassments did not thwart Kobach. Once in office, he continued to contend that noncitizens were casting ballots in droves, although he could not produce evidence of this ostensibly widespread problem. (Kobach has successfully prosecuted exactly one noncitizen voter.) He promoted, then implemented, a stringent law requiring proof of citizenship (like a birth certificate) for all new voter registrants. As of Dec. 11, 2015, about 35,314 Kansans had their voting rights suspended for failing to submit proof of citizenship; 12,227 of these voters were purged from rolls altogether. Voters between the ages of 18 and 29 were three times more likely to lack proof of citizenship than other voters.
The ACLU sued Kobach, arguing that the proof of citizenship requirement violated the National Voter Registration Act, or Motor Voter. A federal court agreed and blocked the law. Kobach responded by creating a two-tier system in which individuals could vote in federal elections without proof of citizenship but not state ones. The ACLU sued again; its plaintiff, Marvin Brown, was a 91-year-old World War II veteran who had voted since the days of poll taxes. Kobach openly questioned whether Brown was truly a citizen. A federal court swiftly enjoined his two-tier system.
Throughout this litigation, Kobach has argued he has proof of myriad noncitizens casting ballots in Kansas. On Wednesday, he stated that he knew of 128 “specific instances” in which noncitizens have either registered to vote or attempted to register in his state. He added that these cases may be the “tip of the iceberg” and that more than 18,000 noncitizens could be registered in Kansas. That 18,000 number came from Jesse Richman, a political scientist who claimed in 2014 that “6.4 percent of noncitizens voted in 2008.” While this claim was easily debunked, Kobach nevertheless hired Richman to analyze Kansas’ voter rolls. As Ari Berman explained in the New York Times:
To reach that [18,000] number, Richman identified 37 noncitizens on a list of temporary driver’s licenses in Kansas and found six who, he wrote in an expert report that Kobach filed in court, “had either registered to vote or attempted to register to vote.” He then divided those six people, representing 16 percent of a total of 37 people, by Kansas’s estimated noncitizen population of 114,000 and concluded that “a very substantial number and portion of noncitizens in Kansas have registered to vote or attempted to register to vote—more than 18,000.”
When Kobach presented these findings in the state Legislature, Berman writes, the gallery broke out in laughter.
Kobach’s claim that he discovered 128 noncitizens attempting to vote in Kansas is similarly deceptive. In court, Kobach claimed he had uncovered a more modest 18 noncitizens who attempted to register, or did register, to vote in Kansas’ Sedgwick County. Upon further scrutiny, each case turned out to be the result of human error, either by election administrators and DMV personnel or voters themselves. It seems administrators accidentally allowed a handful of known noncitizens to register—though they may not have cast a ballot—while others provided inaccurate instructions that led citizens to incorrectly indicate they were noncitizens. Kobach’s latest smoking gun, the centerpiece of his legal defense, is built on misunderstanding and obfuscation.
Now let’s turn to the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, or Crosscheck, which Kobach contended on Wednesday had uncovered “literally millions” of people who’d registered in multiple states. In reality, the program is an unmitigated disaster. Crosscheck purportedly detects individuals who are registered to vote in multiple states. But it often uses nothing more than a first name, last name, and date of birth. (Different states turn over different data, which means the ability to conduct cross-checks varies widely.) As a result, Crosscheck is astoundingly inaccurate; the most comprehensive study found that it produces 200 false positives for every double registrant it discovers. The system is more likely to accuse minorities of double registration; 1 in 6 Hispanics wound up on Crosscheck’s list of suspicious voters. And registering to vote in two states isn’t even illegal, as Steve Bannon well knows.
Why, then, does Kobach continue peddling these outright falsehoods? Two reasons. First, this commission is designed to validate Trump’s claim that he would have won the popular vote in 2016 if millions of people hadn’t cast fraudulent ballots for Hillary Clinton. Kobach has agreed with Trump’s estimate, and he will likely use Crosscheck-style techniques to produce bogus statistics that purportedly legitimize that fictitious claim. Second, Kobach wants Congress to gut the NVRA so states like Kansas are free to demand proof of citizenship and purge voters from the rolls. The NVRA prevents this sort of disenfranchisement, and Kobach has written that he wishes to amend the law in order to relax its safeguards. That, in the end, is the primary goal of this commission: to produce wildly inflated claims of voter fraud, then urge Congress to undermine the NVRA.
Wednesday’s meeting demonstrated that the president, the vice president, and Kobach’s co-commissioners are willing to play along with the ruse. The only remaining question is whether congressional Republicans will buy into their disenfranchisement scheme.