The “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” is becoming the very thing it was created to find: something that undermines voter confidence.
The “voter fraud commission,” as it’s commonly called, is actually not charged with finding instances of voter fraud, according to the executive order that outlines its purpose. Instead, it is charged with finding most anything that enhances or undermines “confidence in the integrity of the voting process” and voting system vulnerabilities that could lead to fraud.
It seems that charge is broad enough to include facts, rumors, and outright conspiracy theories — and the latter two seem to be key areas of focus.
In the lead up to the commission’s meeting in New Hampshire this Tuesday, Kris Kobach, the commission’s chairman, penned an op-ed for Breitbart News in which he recycled a legend well known in Massachusetts and New Hampshire politics.
“It has long been reported, anecdotally, that out-of-staters take advantage of New Hampshire’s same-day registration and head to the Granite State to cast fraudulent votes,” he wrote. “Now there’s proof.”
This “proof,” he suggests, is data on same-day voter registrations for the 2016 election, which show that around 6,000 of those voters held out-of-state IDs. Kobach argues that the fact that many of these same-day voters still don’t have New Hampshire IDs ten months later could be a sign of fraudulent voting.
But even in the short time since Kobach’s claim, his analysis has not held up to scrutiny.
The Washington Post points out that he failed to account for one group of voters that has a reason to hold out of state licenses: college students in New Hampshire who attend from out of state. And indeed, New Hampshire Public Radio found that the towns with the highest rates of voters with out-of-state IDs were college towns.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who sits on the commission, told the Union Leader that the data didn’t amount to proof of fraud and has suggested that the out-of-state licenses do have other possible explanations.
These allegations are nothing new — they’re familiar to anyone who has spent any time in politics in either state. And they’ve been fueled by politicians such as former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who claimed that Bay State voters followed him across the border in 2014 when he relocated to New Hampshire for a second run at the Senate. Former Republican Governor Judd Gregg says he remembers hearing the rumors as far back as 2008.
The 2016 election brought the claim back to life. “I can tell you that this issue of busing voters into New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics,” said White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, who briefly worked on Brown’s 2014 Senate run.
Governor Chris Sununu said the same, telling Boston radio host Howie Carr “when Massachusetts elections are not very close, they’re bussing them in all over the place” — though he later walked back the claim. President Trump also tweeted about the “serious voter fraud” that had occurred in New Hampshire.
Despite all of this, The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog found no unusual turnout surges in 2016 that might be explained by buses from Massachusetts, and Former New Hampshire GOP chair Fergus Cullen dismissed the claim, calling it as old as buses themselves in an interview with USA Today. “It’s been made in many elections,” he said. “But it is completely baseless, completely false.”
Despite the lack of supporting evidence, the rumor lives on, and that’s enough to keep the commission chasing shadows.
Indeed, the thought of busloads of itinerant fraudsters certainly fits the bill as something that would “undermine confidence” in voting. But ironically, the commission is probably doing more to undermine confidence than the rumor itself, with Kobach pushing conspiracy theories through a national megaphone. This, in turn, offers justification for more restrictive voting laws to address the perception the commission is helping to create.
Perhaps saddest of all is that there are many ways that actual experts could help boost confidence in the electoral process, making it more fair, equitable, and transparent. With the growing threat of systemic hacking, along with gerrymandering, voter suppression, and ballot access challenges, which limit Americans’ ability to cast their votes, there are some very real issues that threaten our elections and our democracy that need attention.
By ignoring these much larger threats and focusing instead on unproven campaign gossip, the commission is missing an opportunity to reassure voters that our elections are fair and protected. So if Kobach wants to find what’s undermining voters’ confidence in voting, he need only look in a mirror.