Miles Rapoport on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity

Following the announcement of the establishment of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, we sat down with Miles Rapoport, Senior Democracy Practice Fellow at the Ash Center, to discuss the commission, its composition, and whether it could be an effective force for improving election laws, procedures, and administration.

President Trump’s decision to establish a panel to study voter fraud and suppression, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, has been roundly criticized by voter rights advocates and Democrats. Why is the commission so controversial?

There are a number of really serious problems with the Commission as it has been announced and conceptualized, which have led many people to say that its conclusions are pre-determined and that it will be used as an excuse for new efforts to restrict access to voting.
First, its composition and leadership immediately raised the issue of partisanship. Unlike previous Presidential Commissions (Carter-Baker in 2001, Carter-Ford in 2004, and Bauer-Ginsburg in 2013), its leadership is not bi-partisan. It has Vice President Pence as Chair, and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as Vice Chair; both are Republicans. Its membership has not been fully announced; of seven members announced, five are Republicans, and two are Democratic secretaries of state.
Secondly, its stated purpose, which is to explore the issue of voter fraud and ways to prevent it, is a flawed and one-sided premise. The issue of widespread voter fraud has been examined, and universally debunked, by scholars and studies time and again over the last several years. It was re-raised by candidate Donald Trump, as a reason he might not accept the results of the election. And then it was re-raised by him right after the election, as a reason he lost the popular vote. A number of Republican officials, including several secretaries of state, have stated this is not a major issue in their states.
Why is in-person voter fraud so rare? Did it, as the president suggested, have any bearing on the outcome of the presidential election?
There have been a number of objective studies of the incidence of voter fraud carried out by individual voters. Each one has concluded the same thing, which is that the incidence of in-person voter fraud is exceedingly rare. This makes sense logically, since the benefits to an individual for voting fraudulently are small, and the penalties fairly severe. And, for it to be impactful, it would need to be done on a large scale, for which no evidence exists despite numerous investigations. No informed observer seriously believes that this impacted the 2016 elections.
Even if President’s Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 presidential campaign are widely considered false, why isn’t it a good idea to have a commission examine concerns about fraud and suppression?
A Commission that started with a bipartisan composition, and a broad charge, which would be to study all the ways in which what happened in the 2016 elections could inform improvements in election laws, procedures, and administration of the 2018 elections and beyond, could indeed be useful. We have had Commissions that have done just this, most recently the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, created by President Obama and led by Robert Bauer and Benjamin Ginsburg, leading lawyers for the Democratic Party and the Republican Party respectively. It was created in 2013, and reported in 2014, with a series of widely supported recommendations. The country has yet to adopt a number of the ideas advanced by that Commissions. Nothing about the current commission inspires confidence that it will continue in the mold of other commissions.
Was it appropriate to have appointed Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to the commission?
The appointment of Secretary Kobach as Vice Chair (Vice President Pence is technically the Chair), especially without a Democratic Co- Vice Chair, immediately raised alarm bells about the Commission’s intentions. Kris Kobach is widely known as the most militant crusader against voter fraud anywhere in the country. The Kansas City Star recently called him “the Javert of voter fraud”, hearkening back to the fanatical and unhinged police inspector in Les Miserables. There were many election officials who could have been named to key roles in this commission without setting off the alarm bells that he does; they were not selected.
Given how controversial the commission is, why have a number of Democratic secretaries of state agreed to serve? Do you believe their presence on the commission will serve to legitimize its findings?
Every election official, if they are asked, has to make his or her own decision about serving or refusing to serve. Undoubtedly, the secretaries (Bill Gardner of New Hampshire and Matt Dunlap of Maine) will be on the lookout to see how the Commission develops and whether their engagement can be meaningful. Other secretaries, including Dennis Richardson, the Republican Secretary of Oregon, have said that they will not participate.
Politics aside, if you were offered (and accepted) a seat on the commission, what would you want to investigate?
An interesting question. I would start with the premise that our most important goal as a democracy is to encourage the highest and fullest participation of every individual and segment of our national community. Starting there, I would examine what policies are in place in different states that most encourage participation, and what policies discourage participation. I would also look at the many recent technological and procedural administration innovations, and highlight those that give us the widest participation, and the most effective mechanisms to ensure that the rolls are accurate and up to date, and our that election machines themselves are best geared to easily and properly record every person’s vote. I would also investigate whether our election system is adequately funded, and adequately protected from any outside interference.
In addition, there are other, non-voting administration questions that a real Commission could take up. What about our system of campaign finance? How have Citizens United and other court decisions affected the way campaigns are funded and does large scale and more and more unlimited campaign financing impact our democracy? What about the Electoral College? In two, and almost three, of the last five Presidential elections, the winner received a minority of the popular vote. What about our system of creating and drawing districts? Has gerrymandering and partisan redistricting undermined genuine competition? These and others are large scale structural issues that also would be well worth a serious examination.
There is indeed a lot we can improve about our election laws, systems, and administration. We have made progress over the last 15 years, and we should build on that progress. Focusing on fraud, and narrowing the ability of citizens to vote, is the wrong way to go.