When I was in grade school in the 50s, like most young boys, I played Little League baseball. I wasn’t the best third baseman out there, but I tried hard. One day at the plate, I decided to be clever; I jumped out and pretended to bunt, even letting out a yell in the middle of the pitcher’s wind up. My goal was to get the pitcher to throw wildly, advancing runners and maybe get a walk.
At the end of the inning my father came over to the bench and laid me out. “Don’t ever do that again. It’s a cheap shot, and it’s no way to win,” he said. I was cheating, he told me. He was right, and I was embarrassed and never did it again.
Sadly, we have a president and many in the Republican Party who have decided that one way to win is to suppress the vote in U.S. elections. Victory by intimidation. Cry foul when there is no foul. Alternative facts. Yes, cheat.
President Donald Trump signed one of his ubiquitous executive orders last month to create a national commission to root out supposed voter fraud after accusing millions of illegal immigrants of voting for his opponent. He told a group of members of Congress that “between three million and five million unauthorized immigrants voted for Mrs. Clinton,” The New York Times reported. This was to justify his absurd claim that he would have earned more of the popular vote than then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton if it hadn’t been for those foreigners and scofflaw voters. See this tweet:
Two dozen secretaries of state, Republican and Democrat, have released statements denying that voter fraud occurred in their states. The National Association of Secretaries of State released the following statement on voter fraud: “We are not aware of any evidence that supports the voter fraud claims made by President Trump … In the lead up to the November 2016 election, secretaries of state expressed their confidence in the systemic integrity of our election process as a bipartisan group, and they stand behind that statement today.”
The implications of this executive action by Trump are twofold. First, it encourages state laws that restrict voting for the most vulnerable in our society and severely reduces the turnout of minorities, young people and the poor. Second, it further affects the already abysmal voter turnout that plagues U.S. elections.
Let’s start with turnout and voter participation. The United States has one of the worst records of voter turnout among developed nations. According to Pew Research, Belgium, Sweden and Denmark rank in the top three, with voter turnout at 87 percent, 83 percent and 80 percent respectively. The United States scores way down the list at 27th, with 56 percent. It’s hard to imagine that the world’s largest democracy ranks that abysmally. We seem to make it more difficult for our citizens to vote by requiring more and more hoops to jump through.
For decades, we have had discussions of voting on weekends, creating a national holiday, incorporating more vote by mail, instituting universal voter registration at age 18, reducing long lines and wait times with more locations, encouraging more early voting and more. With Trump’s commission, though, we are facing one of the most nefarious and crassly cynical efforts to not only depress voter turnout but to game the system so that Democratic-leaning voters are prevented from being allowed to vote. Not since the segregated South, with poll taxes and literacy tests, have we witnessed such a direct assault on voting rights.
But make no mistake this is where we are headed. The appointment of Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, who has made it his signature cause to attack voting rights and rail against immigrants, is leading the newly appointed commission, with Vice President Mike Pence as the titular head. Kobach has been a regular Johnny-one-note on cable television for several years, trying desperately to come up with some semblance of justification for his cries of voter fraud.
His goal: Use wild accusations and a few minor cases to draft legislation for Republican legislators and governors to prevent those who will likely vote Democratic from registering and voting. Require birth certificates or passports, refuse student photo IDs and find voters who have moved but not canceled their previous registration and deny them a vote. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states now have restrictive voter ID laws. If Kobach and Trump have their way, more restrictions are in store.
The courts have thrown out some portions of the more absurd state laws that were clumsily written or outright discriminatory. In North Carolina, the appeals court went so far as to assert that “the new provisions target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” But that has not stopped Kobach and many Republican state legislators from trying to draft new laws to prevent citizens from casting a ballot.
In Texas, they passed a law stating you can vote with a concealed weapons permit – but not a student ID at the University of Texas. Wisconsin passed legislation denying 300,000 registered voters the right to vote. Other states have severely reduced early voting, done away with same day registration and reduced the number of voting stations.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there is a serious threat currently underway in 2017. “Overall, at least 99 bills to restrict access to registration and voting have been introduced in 31 states. Thirty-five such bills saw significant legislative action (meaning they have at least been approved at the committee level or beyond) in 17 states.”
But why push ahead if there is so little evidence of voter fraud?
In all of Kansas, Kobach found nine people, that’s it – nine people – who had some sort of problem. So, I guess he is going to take his great success over the last six years and go national with it, proving in the end, that there is no there, there. The Kansas City Star called Kobach the “Javert of voter fraud,” referring to the famous character from “Les Miserables” who pursued Jean Valjean for the theft of a loaf of bread.
The reason for pursuing voter fraud, of course, is that it pays serious political dividends, especially in close elections like this past year’s presidential campaign. A recent analysis of the 2016 election published in the Washington Post by Bernard Fraga, Sean McElwee, Jesse Rhodes and Brian Schaffner indicated that a depressed black vote and increased white vote likely made a decisive difference in three critical states – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. A win by Clinton in those states would have given her the presidency. When they calculated the change from 2012 to 2016, they found an increase in the white vote in Pennsylvania of 5.2 percent and a decrease in the black vote of 2.1 percent. In Wisconsin the black drop-off was 12.3 percent, Michigan was 12.4 percent. Even North Carolina was 7.1 percent and Ohio 7.5 percent, though the margins for Trump were wider in those states.
Republicans get this: Depress African-American turnout, and you can win. Depress the Hispanic turnout, and you can win. Depress the under-35 group turnout, and you can win.
Kobach is not a stupid man. He is not a simplistic demagogue. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, earned a Ph.D. from Oxford and graduated from Yale Law School. He may be very ambitious, and he may be riding this horse to national prominence, but he knows what he’s doing. Writing this movement off to unsophisticated wrongheadedness would be a serious mistake.
That is why it is all the more appalling that Kobach is heading up what the Trump administration is calling the Commission on Election Integrity. There is no integrity here. There is no effort to expand and enhance voter participation in American politics. There is no effort to play fair, to play by reasonable rules, to bring more people to the polls. The evidence is clear on voter suppression versus voter fraud: Fraud is practically non-existent, suppression is on the move.
As I learned on the Little League ball field, winning isn’t everything, the ends don’t always justify the means and, more basically, you don’t cheat. Democracy is at stake here, and anyone who cares about our system, Republican or Democrat, should be vocal and do their damnedest to stop it.