The Trump administration’s election-integrity commission will have its first meeting on Wednesday to map out how the president will strip the right to vote from millions of Americans. It hasn’t gotten off to the strongest start: Its astonishing request last month that each state hand over voters’ personal data was met with bipartisan condemnation. Yet it is joined in its efforts to disenfranchise citizens by the immensely more powerful Justice Department.
Lost amid the uproar over the commission’s request was a letter sent at the same time by the Justice Department’s civil rights division. It forced 44 states to provide extensive information on how they keep their voter rolls up-to-date. It cited the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, known as the Motor-Voter law, which mandates that states help voters register through motor vehicle departments.
The letter doesn’t ask whether states are complying with the parts of the law that expand opportunities to register. Instead it focuses on the sections related to maintaining the lists. That’s a prelude to voter purging.
Usually the Justice Department would ask only a single state for data if it had evidence the state wasn’t complying with Motor-Voter. But a blanket request to every state covered under that law is virtually unprecedented. And unlike the commission, the Justice Department has federal statutory authority to investigate whether states are complying with the law.
These parallel efforts show us exactly how the Trump administration will undertake its enormous voter suppression campaign: through voter purges. The voter rolls are the key. Registration is one of the main gateways to political participation. It is the difference between a small base of voters pursuing a narrow agenda and an electorate that looks like America.
Here’s how the government will use voters’ data. It will create a national database to try to find things like double-voters. But the commission won’t be able to tell two people with the same name and birthday apart. Such errors will hit communities of color the hardest. Census data shows that minorities are overrepresented in 85 of the 100 most common last names.
Purging voters is part of a larger malicious pattern that states have employed across the country. Georgia and Ohio are being sued for carrying out early versions of what we can expect from the Trump administration.
To enact his plan, President Trump has assembled the voter suppression dream team of Kris Kobach, Ken Blackwell, Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams, who have all made wildly inflated claims about voter fraud.
Mr. Kobach has been at the vanguard of a crusade against Motor-Voter and has been sued at least three times for making it harder for Kansans to vote. Before the 2016 election, he illegally blocked tens of thousands of voters from registering. Mr. Blackwell rejected registration forms because they were printed on paper he thought was too thin. Mr. von Spakovsky has led numerous unsuccessful legal efforts to diminish voter participation and to fight voting rights. Mr. Adams published personal information about people whom he wrongly accused of committing multiple felonies in a flawed hunt for fraud.
The commission’s efforts have been similarly sloppy so far. At least seven lawsuits claim it has violated federal and constitutional law, including privacy rights or transparency laws.
The litigation and pushback from the states that have refused to turn over voters’ data have slowed the efforts down, for now. But my biggest fear is that the government will issue a report with “findings” of unsupported claims of illegal voting, focused on communities of color.
These wild claims won’t be just hot air. Members of Congress will seize on them to turn back protections in federal law. States will enact new barriers to the ballot box. Courts will point to the commission’s work to justify their decisions.
The irony is that there are serious threats to our voting systems, from cyberattacks to aging machines to Russian interference to discriminatory voter ID laws at the state level. Those are the real problems, but that’s not what the commission was created to address.
In response to all this, citizens are pulling themselves off voter rolls out of fear that their personal information will be leaked. A Denver elections official said her office has seen a 2,150 percent increase in voter registration withdrawals. Taking ourselves off the rolls means sacrificing our voices and giving the Trump administration exactly what it wants.
We need to push back. Voting experts must debunk the administration’s false claims of fraud. Civil rights law firms should continue to litigate. Local politicians from both parties ought to stand firm against pressure from Washington. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights coalition will be in the thick of this fight.