Trump’s Lousy “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity”

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

On May 11, Trump established the “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” by executive order. The Times has an editorial (“Trump’s Fraudulent Voter-Fraud Commission”) decrying it, but it’s noteworthy that neither the Executive Order nor the Times editorial mention two elephants in the room on election integrity:

(1) Inexorably declining voter participation. The American Presidency Project shows a yearly decline of turnout as a percentage of the voting population from from 62.77% in 1960 to 54.87% in 2012 (low by world standards). Can a democratic system really be said to have “integrity” if only a bare majority of voters find it worthwhile to participate? (One can only wonder why that would be.)

(2) Voting systems that are easy to game. The world standard is hand-marked paper ballots hand-counted in public. The United States has not adopted it. Can a democratic system be said to have “integrity” of election theft is easily practiced?[1]

If the first item is not on the agenda, it means that expanding the size of the electorate is not on the agenda, whether in the White House or at The Times. And if the second item is not on the agenda, that means that ensuring citizens that their votes do count is not on the agenda either. Making a battle of “election integrity” more than a little farcical.[2]

In this brief post, I’m going to look at the text of the Executive Order and contextualize it.

Membership

Here is section 2:

Sec. 2. Membership. The Vice President shall chair the Commission, which shall be composed of not more than 15 additional members. The President shall appoint the additional members, who shall include individuals with knowledge and experience in elections, election management, election fraud detection, and voter integrity efforts, and any other individuals with knowledge or experience that the President determines to be of value to the Commission. The Vice President may select a Vice Chair of the Commission from among the members appointed by the President.

And the personnel of the Commission, from the White House press conference announcing it:

[SARAH SANDERS] I’d like to announce that the President also just signed another executive order establishing a bipartisan presidential advisory commission on election integrity. This will be chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. The President is committed to the thorough review of registration and voting issues in federal elections. And that’s exactly what this commission is tasked with doing.

The bipartisan commission will be made up of around a dozen members, including current and former Secretaries of State, with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach serving as vice chair. It will also include individuals with knowledge and experience in elections, election management, election fraud detection, and voter integrity efforts.

Five additional members that have been announced as of today — Connie Lawson, the Secretary of State of Indiana; Bill Gardner, Secretary of State of New Hampshire; Matthew Dunlap, the Secretary of State of Maine; Ken Blackwell, former Secretary of State of Ohio; and Christy McCormack, a commissioner on Election Assistance Commission.

I’m not sure why the Commission was announced if all the membership slots were unfilled, that seems odd. I was also surprised to find that the Commission actually is [genuflects] bipartisan: Connie Lawson (R, Indiana); Bill Gardener (D, New Hampshire); Matthew Dunlap (D, Maine), Ken Blackwell (R, Ohio). It’s worth noting that both Lawson and Pence, and Ken Blackwell, have been involved in election integrity episodes that some might characterize as sketchy. (Christy A. McCormick is from the Election Assistance Commission, and implements the horrid Help America Vote Act, which got so many hackable electronic voting machines installed, as well as an abortive plan to get state proof-of-citizenship information onto the Federal registration form.)

But the really horrid appointment is Kris Kobach as Vice-Chair. The Times editorial is shockingly weak on this point. They write:

In contrast, Mr. Trump has put his commission in the hands of Kris Kobach, a hard-line conservative from Kansas who is the nation’s most aggressive peddler of the voter-fraud myth.

Mr. Kobach — who has managed to obtain just nine convictions for voter fraud since 2015, most for voting in two states — thinks he is standing on the “tip of the iceberg.” He claims he can’t understand why voting-rights advocates resist a deeper inquiry into fraud. “What are they afraid of? Why do they not want to know these numbers?” he asked.

No, no, no, no, no. The real problem with Kobach is not that he’s an “aggressive peddler” of “the voter-fraud myth,” but that he’s an aggressive promoter of the notorious — well, it should be notorious — CrossCheck system, that denied many thousands of citizens their votes, but which the Times does not mention. Greg Palast has a long article in Rolling Stone explaining how lousy CrossChecks’ data and algorithms are, and I’ll pick the most gloriously horrid examples:

We were able to obtain more lists – Georgia and Washington state, the total number of voters adding up to more than 1 million matches – and Crosscheck’s results seemed at best deeply flawed. We found that one-fourth of the names on the list actually lacked a middle-name match. The system can also mistakenly identify fathers and sons as the same voter, ignoring designations of Jr. and Sr. A whole lot of people named “James Brown” are suspected of voting or registering twice, 357 of them in Georgia alone. But according to Crosscheck, James Willie Brown is supposed to be the same voter as James Arthur Brown. James Clifford Brown is allegedly the same voter as James Lynn Brown.

And those promised birth dates and Social Security numbers? The Crosscheck instruction manual says that “Social Security numbers are included for verification; the numbers might or might not match” – which leaves a crucial step in the identification process up to the states. Social Security numbers weren’t even included in the state lists we obtained.

We had Mark Swedlund, a database expert whose clients include eBay and American Express, look at the data from Georgia and Virginia, and he was shocked by Crosscheck’s “childish methodology.” He added, “God forbid your name is Garcia, of which there are 858,000 in the U.S., and your first name is Joseph or Jose. You’re probably suspected of voting in 27 states.”

Data people, are you laughing or crying? And oddly, or not, the errors seemed to be directional:

Swedlund’s statistical analysis found that African-American, Latino and Asian names predominate, a simple result of the Crosscheck matching process, which spews out little more than a bunch of common names. No surprise: The U.S. Census data shows that minorities are overrepresented in 85 of 100 of the most common last names. If your name is Washington, there’s an 89 percent chance you’re African-American. If your last name is Hernandez, there’s a 94 percent chance you’re Hispanic. If your name is Kim, there’s a 95 percent chance you’re Asian.

Palast gives the effects on a particular election:

Crosscheck in action:
Trump victory margin in Michigan: 13,107
Michigan Crosscheck purge list: 449,922

Trump victory margin in Arizona: 85,257
Arizona Crosscheck purge list: 270,824
Trump victory margin in North Carolina: 177,008
North Carolina Crosscheck purge list: 589,393

Of course, if voter registration were a core party function, Kobach’s CrossCheck wouldn’t have been able to do the dirty in Michigan and Arizona and North Carolina, but it is what it is and we are where we are.[3]

If Repblicans were the only members on the Commission, one might indeed call it “The Commission to Round Up the Usual Suspects,” and suspect it was established to prove a particular thesis:

Repeatedly, throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump claimed that the 2016 election was “absolutely being rigged.” Not only in the sense of an allegedly distorted media narrative, “but also at many polling places.” He specifically claimed, for example, that there was “large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.”

The President has already come to a widely publicized conclusion with respect to the issue. The Co-Chair of the Commission has done the same. If an “investigation” starts with its own firm conclusion, it is not an investigation. It is either a witch hunt or a snipe hunt. Or both.

Mission

Here is section 3:

Sec. 3. Mission. The Commission shall, consistent with applicable law, study the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections. The Commission shall be solely advisory and shall submit a report to the President that identifies the following:

(a) those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections;

(b) those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that undermine the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections; and

(c) those vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.

The key word here is “confidence,” which doesn’t inspire, well, confidence; voters are often confident in a system where their candidates win! Election Academy:

The third subsection is what you might have expected, but the first two (“enhance/undermine”) focus not on the election system but Americans’ confidence in the system. As we’ve seen many times over the years, voter confidence often has little correlation to the actual conduct of elections but actually tracks other partisan or policy views – or even whether or not the preferred candidate won in the most recent election.

In addition, the focus on confidence makes the Commission a public relations exercise at best. The Vermont Secretary of State:

Finally, the Mission seems almost designed to exacerbate partisan division. Election Updates:

Election integrity is the principal dimension over which Democrats and Republicans differ when they think about the main problems of election policy, both at the mass and elite levels. For instance, in my own module of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, I asked respondents to place themselves on a five-point continuum, based on which of the following statements was closest to their own opinion: (1) It is important to make voting as easy as possible, even if there are some security risks, vs. (2) It is important to make voting as secure as possible, even if voting is not easy. Here is how partisans distributed themselves among these answers:

This pattern recurs on virtually all questions on this survey — and others like it — that touch on security vs. access. Bottom line: This is a commission focused on problems that Republicans will resonate with and Democrats won’t. Unlike the last presidential commission on election issues, the Bauer-Ginsberg PCEA, the Pence Commission seems like a body that will primarily reinforce partisan lines and gridlock on hot-button election issues.

Conclusion

Taking both the personnel and the mission of the Commission into account, it’s hard to argue with what Sanders says:

“The sole purpose of this commission is to propagate a myth and to give encouragement to Republican governors and state legislators to increase voter suppression,” said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who challenged Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

If I were a Democratic Strategist, I’d recommend using the Advisory Commission as a bully pulpit for expanding the electorate and hand-marked paper ballots hand-counted in public, and be sure to include a Minority Report that raised those issues, and gets them into the “national conversation.” That’s unlikely to happen, which tells you the real problem with election integrity; neither the parties nor the political class really want it.

NOTES

[1] For example, the Ossoff race in GA-06:

The April contest was conducted following multiple hacks on various offices, stolen electronic poll books that included a copy of Georgia’s statewide voter file, and a software system with such gaping security holes that the author of one report questioned if the gaps were a deliberate back door left open for potential manipulation. This is not the first time the question of software back doors on voting equipment has arisen. In a February 2017 article in the New Republic, Steve Friess wrote, “The machines are prone to malfunctions and miscounts, and many have back doors that can enable attackers to alter the outcome by infecting them with malware.”

The race is being widely viewed as a barometer of the Democrats 2018 midterm prospects. But unless Georgia heeds the advice of over 20 national and international computer experts and implements paper ballots and post-election audits in its upcoming June 20 race, the face off between Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff and former Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel is likely to produce results that many voters will question.

Yikes.

[2] Both parties do it. Washington Post: “But the redistricting bill that emerged this year in Annapolis — in equal parts cynical and ludicrous — makes clear that the Democrats who dominate both houses of the General Assembly there remain loath to part with the incumbent-protection racket that enables them to choose their voters and perpetuate their grip on power with scant regard for good governance.” Nate Silver: “[W}hen it comes to scheduling off-cycle elections like those taking place today, the Democratic Party is the champion of voter suppression.”

[3] I identify “Voter Registration Not Core Party Function” as a critical “pathway to misfortune” for Clinton in 2016, with black, Hispanic, and rural voters.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

15 comments

  1. Vatch

    the face off between Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff and former Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel is likely to produce results that many voters will question.

    This could be good. If enough voters, and more importantly, wealthy donors, question the election, some counties and states might be motivated to improve their electoral systems. For example, they could require paper ballots that can be part of a recount.

    1. Kim Kaufman

      GA has been “questionable” since at least 2004. No different results have come of it. They still have totally unverifiable DRE voting.

      1. Vatch

        My hope is that enough of the people on the losing side will complain because they are angry that they wastefully donated $2700 to a candidate in the primary, followed by $2700 to Ossoff or Handel in the runoff. We’ll see. Inertia is very powerful in politics, but this special election is getting a lot of attention.

  2. Kim Kaufman

    Hi Lambert – I think there’s a typo here:

    (1) Inexorably declining voter participation. The American Presidency Project shows a yearly decline of turnout as a percentage of the voting population from from 62.77% in 1960 to 54.87% in 54.87%

  3. Enquiring Mind

    Data geeks in days of yore spoke of cracking the tape and de-duping it to clean up the data and delete duplicate records. People followed defined procedures and produced auditable, replicable results.
    In the modern DC era, the duping going on is by the policy class. I suggest some new forms of de-duping!

  4. PKMKII

    I’ll assume that the commission will do nothing to investigate where the real fraud occurs, among those counting the votes.

  5. shinola

    Living in Kansas, I can tell you that Kobach is a lying, grandstanding, fear mongering, hyper-partisan A-hole.
    Nothing good can come out of any “commission” that includes him.

    (In these parts, it is strongly rumored that Kobach has intimate carnal knowledge of barnyard animals – he is particularly fond of swine)

  6. WeakendSquire

    WaPo’s treacly new slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness,” reveals the depth of MSM bubbledom on the nature of the problem that this commission purports to address. “Democracy” actually “dies” when the government responds primarily to the interests of elites and ignores the sentiments and concerns of the broad public. In that sense, democracy actually died in the United States decades ago.

    Now only 30% of the public still believe that off-year elections are worth their time; 20% are interested enough in local elections to vote in those (not coincidentally, the most “reformed” and beaten-into-submission level of government); while the celebrity factor of presidential contests manages to draw a little over 50%, probably by appealing to the same instincts that drive many people to buy lottery tickets as a form of entertainment. By seeking to drive the vote down further, this commission is literally battling a zombie.

  7. Punxsutawney

    Hmmm…Not one official or former official from Oregon. Which has vote by mail and one of the highest turnouts nationally. Not to say our system is perfect, there are still improvements that could be made.

    This is all about proving the false claim that millions are voting illegally and making even harder to vote in this country.

  8. Stephen Douglas

    While your 2 “elephants in the room” are correct, your conjecture that you have decided is a conclusion (as in, it’s a done deal, that’s it, it’s happened, or it will happen, no doubt) that the Trump commission will not deal with either are premature.

    And then you go on and on and on in order to “prove” something that has not happened yet.

    This column falls into the well-worn now by this time thing that people who criticize everything Trump do: Trump is such a dirtbag that anything he says or he does is automatically doomed to failure, because:

    1. he appointed people who are no good;
    2. he didn’t address your particular issue beforehand (which apparently means he or the commission will never address it ever),
    3. nothing good can ever come from anyone in the Trump administration because of something they did or said in the past (i.e., a leopard can’t change its spots–of course, that’s not even close to being true. Just look at LBJ and his Civil Rights legislation after being a faithful Dixiecrat Senator for years, and there are countless other examples).

    Why spend so much time on this negative speculation? Writing paragraph after paragraph on exactly how and why it just won’t work out?

    Oh my. Why don’t you give it a chance. There will be plenty of time to be outraged/ujpset/disappointed/flumoxed when the commission does or does not do something.

    This is like watching CNN or any news show: all of this endless speculative chatter from talking heads that are supposed “experts.”

    Experts at estimating why nothing will ever work for anyone at any time. Because Trump I guess. You tell us, because no one I know why you expend so much on something so nonsensical.

  9. David

    Look…what Kobach want to do is build up a national database of every voter, then work gerrymandering to a fine art with this data to insure the continued Trump Dynasty

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