When discussing the right to vote — the most fundamental right in our democracy — it is important to separate fact from conjecture, myth from reality. Unfortunately, the recent op-ed from the organization Americans First Inc. about President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission fails in that regard.
Focusing solely on allegedly bloated voter registration rolls, the op-ed suggests that voter fraud is widespread. It uses unreliable studies based on Census estimates, not hard data. It fails to acknowledge that Trump’s commission is hardly bipartisan and does not have the support of any serious academic in the election law field.
Let’s separate the facts from hyperbole.
Fact: Voter registration rolls are always slightly outdated because people die and move all of the time. There is nothing fraudulent about a voter registration list that still includes some of these people.
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Fact: Having bloated voter rolls is not the same as widespread voter fraud. I have studied the right to vote for over 10 years and have read every significant reputable study of the issue. They demonstrate that illegal voting is exceedingly rare.
For example, one study showed that between 2000 and 2014, there were only 31 credible allegations of illegal voting out of over 1 billion votes cast across the country. The Washington Post found just four instances of possible voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election. Even an investigation by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is leading Trump’s commission, failed to turn up much voter fraud.
Fact: The studies the op-ed relies upon do not show voter fraud. At most they demonstrate that registration status may change frequently, especially in our mobile society. Further, it points to a Judicial Watch study to support its claims, but that study is based on Census estimates, not hard data.
As for any noncitizens on the voter rolls, the more likely explanation is that they registered by mistake, such as when applying for a driver’s license. There is little evidence that they actually vote to any significant degree. The few who do face prosecution.
Fact: Voter fraud in Kentucky is relatively rare and does not happen through registration irregularities. Instead, the fraud that occurs, such as in some local elections in Eastern Kentucky, typically involves complicit poll workers or outright vote buying, which authorities have uncovered and prosecuted.
Fact: Voter matching in the way that the commission proposes, with a nationwide list compiled from state lists, is extremely unreliable. Researchers have documented the well-known “birthday problem,” where two people of the same name are surprisingly likely also to share the same birthday. Having the same name and birthday on two state’s voter rolls, without more, is obviously not evidence of fraud.
Fact: Most respected election law academics have refused to endorse Trump’s commission. That is because it, unlike election commissions of the past, is not bipartisan. Its chair is Vice President Mike Pence; vice chair is Kobach, also a Republican. Most of its other members are Republicans; several have peddled the voter fraud myth without much evidence. The only Democrats are relatively unknown to the election-law world.
Fact: Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, like election officials of both parties in other states, complies with the National Voter Registration Act by periodically cleaning up voter rolls.
Her spokesperson has said that the state purged 48,201 people from the rolls in 2016 and removed 110,980 in 2015. Moreover, Grimes championed online voter registration, which experts say can improve the accuracy of voter rolls.
Finally, here’s my own conjecture, although it is well supported by the facts: This Commission exists to create an aura of voter fraud that does not actually occur to justify laws that will make it harder to vote.
Trump will use so-called findings of bloated voter rolls to call for the repeal of democracy-enhancing rules. But we should be making it easier, not harder, to participate in our elections. Democracy functions best when all eligible citizens can vote without unnecessary hurdles.
Secretary Grimes is correct in her refusal to be complicit in this charade.
Joshua A. Douglas is a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who specializes in election law, voting rights and constitutional law. He is co-editor of “Election Law Stories.” Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaADouglas.
At issue: Commentary by Dan M. Rose and Ron Vissing, “Ky. should give voter data to Trump panel”