Voter Fraud? Or Voter Suppression?

Critics charge that the real goal of a new federal commission to investigate voter fraud is to justify efforts to make it more difficult for people of color to vote.  Students learn about and discuss the controversy.  

To the Teacher

In May 2017, President Trump signed an executive order creating the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. This commission was ostensibly formed to investigate claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election. Almost immediately, civil rights advocates raised concerns about the true intentions of the commission. They noted that while there is little evidence that voter fraud is taking place in the United States on any significant scale, lawmakers claiming to fight fraud have in fact passed laws that serve to suppress voting, especially in low–income communities and communities of color.

This lesson consists of two readings designed to spark student discussion about current voter fraud investigations and the ongoing problem of voter suppression. The first reading covers President Trump’s commission, his voter fraud claims, and some of the responses to them. The second reading explores the recent trend of states passing laws that make it more difficult for people to vote. Questions for discussion follow each reading.



Reading 1
Accusations of Voter Fraud: Valid or Misguided?

In May 2017, President Trump signed an executive order creating the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The commission was ostensibly formed to investigate claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election. Almost immediately, civil rights advocates raised concerns about the true intentions of the commission. They noted that, while there is little evidence that voter fraud is taking place on any significant scale in the United States, lawmakers claiming to fight fraud have in fact passed laws that serve to suppress voting, especially in low–income communities and communities of color.

Even before Election Day in 2016, then–candidate Trump was warning of the possibility of voter fraud. After Trump lost the popular vote (but won in the electoral college, which made him president), he suggested that millions of votes were cast illegally in the 2016 election – an extraordinary claim that experts believe has no basis in fact.

In a July 19, 2017, article for the Washington Post, senior political reporter Aaron Blake argued that the president’s allegations are implausible: 

Warning: I am going to apply some logic and reason to an illogical and unreasonable position that has been staked out by President Trump and now today by the head of the White House's voter–fraud commission, Kris Kobach. This argument will not prove persuasive to either of them, but facts matter, and it's worth noting just how fantastic a claim they are making.

Trump has said that he believes there were millions of people who voted illegally in the 2016 election — specifically 3 million to 5 million, conveniently enough to account for his 2.8–million–vote loss in the popular vote. Also conveniently, he claimed that every single one of these votes was for Hillary Clinton and that they generally occurred in states that she won, not the states he won...

Trump contended that all of these illegal votes were for Clinton. If that were somehow true, there would still need to have been 2.8 million illegal votes to make the difference in the popular vote. That would mean that more than 2 percent of all ballots cast were illegal...

The idea that 1 out of every 30 or even 1 out of every 22 votes was cast illegally is suggesting a massive fraud. And the idea that this could have been perpetrated without basically any detection in the eight months since the election is pretty astounding.

In a July 19, 2017, article for the New York Times, national correspondent Michael Wines described the controversy surrounding the initial meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity:

President Trump’s commission investigating voter fraud held its first meeting Wednesday amid a swirl of partisan acrimony and questions about whether it is looking for facts or has already decided which facts it is trying to find.

The session featured an early statement by Mr. Trump, whose baseless claim that he would have won the popular vote in 2016 if not for millions of illegal voters hung over the gathering. He said he was told stories during and after his presidential campaign of voting irregularities "in some cases having to do with large numbers of people in certain states."

The meeting’s coda was an MSNBC television interview in which Kris Kobach, the Kansas Republican who is the panel’s vice chairman and de facto head, was asked, "Do you believe Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three to five million votes because of voter fraud?" He replied: "We will probably never know the answer to that question. Because even if you could prove that a certain number of votes were cast by ineligible voters, for example, you wouldn’t know how they voted."

Mr. Kobach, one of the nation’s leading advocates of tougher voting restrictions, later said that he was addressing whether the exact breakdown of legal votes could be known, not who won, and that similar doubts hung over tallies in states that Mr. Trump won.

The day’s events nonetheless did little or nothing to silence charges by Democrats and voting–rights advocates that the commission was a sham meant to produce inflated claims of fraud that would pave the way to stricter requirements for registering and casting ballots.

Trump said that the advisory commission’s work would "fairly and objectively follow the facts wherever they may lead." He later questioned the motives of officials who had refused to cooperate with the investigation, saying, "One has to wonder what they’re worried about. There’s something. There always is."

One of the commission’s most controversial moves has been to ask each state to provide extensive information about voters. Kobach sent a letter to all 50 states requesting a huge amount of data, which he noted could eventually be made available to the public. The request included voters’ names, birth dates, party affiliations, the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, a list of the elections they voted in since 2006, felony convictions, military status, and whether they lived overseas.

As CNN reporters Liz Stark and Grace Hauck explain:

The commission, which is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, seemed to misunderstand voter privacy laws nationwide. Every state that responded to the commission's letter said it could not provide Social Security numbers, for example. Others said they consider information such as birth dates and party affiliations to be private.

What's more, Kobach asked states to supply the information through an online portal. Many states have rejected this specific request, noting that the commission should file a voter information request through established state websites, as any other party would...

Just three states – Colorado, Missouri and Tennessee – commended Kobach's attempt to investigate voter fraud in their respective statements.

Nineteen states openly criticized the commission's request, some with stinging words.

Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, Republican: "The President's Commission has quickly politicized its work by asking states for an incredible amount of voter data that I have, time and time again, refused to release. My response to the Commission is, you're not going to play politics with Louisiana's voter data, and if you are, then you can purchase the limited public information available by law, to any candidate running for office. That's it."

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Republican: "My reply would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from. Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our state's right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes."

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Democrat: "This entire commission is based on the specious and false notion that there was widespread voter fraud last November. At best this commission was set up as a pretext to validate Donald Trump's alternative election facts, and at worst is a tool to commit large–scale voter suppression."


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. Why have many state officials refused to share voter information with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity?
  3. Some civil rights advocates argue that the commission has already decided on its conclusions before doing the investigation, while others believe the commission may find actual evidence of serious voter fraud, even though there is no evidence yet. What do you think? Has the commission already decided what it will find, or is the investigation sincere? What evidence do you have to support your view?



Reading 2
Losing Your Right to Vote

Voting rights and civil rights organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the League of Women Voters argue that voter fraud claims are thinly veiled attempts to discourage young people and people of color from voting. Discouraging eligible voters from voting, whether through legal means, voter intimidation at polling places, or misinformation, is called voter suppression.

Dale Ho, Director of ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, notes that voter fraud claims have often led to voter suppression. Ho called President Trump’s executive order on election integrity "the first step in a plan to suppress voting in this country. There is no evidence that we have a problem with election integrity. You can tell that this is a sham commission just by the appointment of Kris Kobach, someone who has devoted much of his professional life to suppressing the vote, to vice–chair. It’s a circus show, designed to undermine confidence in our system and to reach a pre–determined result and to justify laws that make it harder for people to register and vote as a result."

Ho said that defenders of voting rights should be on the lookout for any discussion about changing the "motor voter" law. This 1993 law ensures that anyone who interacts with the Department of Motor Vehicles or other government agency has the opportunity to register to vote. Ho says:

We know that Kobach has a plan to change the motor voter law. The documents that outline the plan were photographed in his arms when he was interviewing for homeland security secretary. There’s no real inquiry happening here; the outcome and policy recommendations are already determined. And it’s going to be to try and change the motor voter law so that instead of this uniform and simple system that we have nationwide, we’ll have the disaster of voter suppression that Kobach has enacted in Kansas...

The ACLU has mounted a legal challenge to voting policies Kobach helped enact in Kansas.

Curtailing the motor voter law is just one of many ways to suppress votes. In a January 11, 2017, essay in The American Prospect, deputy editor Gabrielle Gurley described a number of laws that discouraged voting in the 2016 election, and that might have affected the outcome:

Unnerved by progressive voting policies and by the numbers of black, Latino, and young voters streaming into the electorate, Republican state lawmakers across the country have moved to suppress the franchise.... The strategy is simple: Turn voting into a bureaucratic nightmare by eliminating popular timesavers such as same–day registration and early voting. Require photo identification to vote, using IDs that many people don’t have or cannot pay for. The harder it is to vote, especially for people juggling some combination of work, classes, and child or elder care, the fewer people will.

It is difficult if not impossible to calculate how voter suppression affected voter turnout or the outcome of the presidential election. What is indisputable is that these roadblocks deterred many people from exercising the franchise, particularly in states like North Carolina with a long history of racial voter suppression. Many of those new election laws were promulgated after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that invalidated provisions of the Voting Rights Act that required U.S. Justice Department review of election law changes. North Carolina was especially adept in manipulating the building blocks of suppression through redistricting, racial gerrymandering, and unprecedented election law changes.

Fourteen states had new restrictive measures in place for the general election. Wisconsin requires photo ID, a hardship for many: In 2014, a federal district court judge determined that an estimated 300,000 registered voters did not have one... Over the past five years, Ohio has purged two million voters from the voting rolls. Trump won the Buckeye State by about 447,000 votes.

Despite a federal court order striking down its so–called monster voter–suppression law, North Carolina officials devised ways to ensure that there were 27 fewer places to vote on Election Day. Seventeen of the state’s 100 counties also saw cuts to early–voting locations and hours, resulting in a drop of nearly 66,000 votes during the early–voting period, an 8.7 percent decrease from 2012, according to Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor.

ACLU’s Dale Ho connects the push for voter suppression to the growing diversity of the U.S. population.  "People of color are growing, not just in terms of their numbers but in terms of the rate at which they participate in the elections. And that may have consequences in terms of who wins elections. In a democracy, you can either compete for these votes or you can try to suppress them."

Ho believes that "the American people should demand that elected officials and election administrators not participate in this phony commission," and should fight efforts to change the motor voter law. And, he argues, "we have to talk about what is really wrong with voting in the United States: We have one of the worst voter turnout rates in the world. Our democracy’s weakness is that there are so many eligible people who don’t make it to the polls, not that we have ineligible people trying to break into the system. If we want to enhance election integrity, we should focus on ensuring that everyone who wants to participate can."


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what is voter suppression? What are some measures being passed on the state level that make it harder to vote?
  3. Why might requiring voters to show a photo ID be an impediment to voting? Why do you think this requirement might impact some groups of people more than others?
  4. According to the reading, what is the "motor voter law"? How did this law make it easier to vote? What might be the impact of repealing this law?
  5. If you were serving on the President’s Commission on Election Integrity, what issues would you like to work on? What steps do you think should be taken to improve our elections and guarantee the right to vote?


— Research assistance provided by Ryan Leitner