Voter suppression is the real culprit

5/20/2017, 7:44 a.m.
After President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because of, as the president admitted, the “Russian thing,” he struck a ...
Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

Jesse L. Jackson Sr.

After President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because of, as the president admitted, the “Russian thing,” he struck a new blow to American democracy. The president created a commission on “election integrity,” stemming from his fantastical claims of voter fraud in the 2016 election.

In reality, fraudulent voting is virtually nonexistent. The claims of widespread voter fraud are a fraud. Voter suppression, on the other hand, is a real, present and increasing threat to our democracy. And all signs are that President Trump’s commission will add to that threat.

President Trump named Vice President Mike Pence as chair, with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a leading advocate of ballot-restricting legislation, as vice chair. Mr. Kobach has made a national spectacle of himself as a crazed pursuer of mythical voter fraud. In Kansas, he has led Republican efforts to suppress the vote.

As Ari Berman of The Nation reports, Mr. Kobach claimed that “the illegal registration of alien voters has become pervasive,” although he could point to only five alleged cases of noncitizens voting in Kansas during the previous 13 years.

Mr. Kobach helped push through a law that required documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote, such as a birth certificate, a passport or naturalization papers. That requirement disproportionately impacts the elderly, the poor and the young, who often don’t have access to such papers. Since the law went into effect in 2013, Mr. Berman reports, “one in seven Kansans who attempted to register have had their registrations held ‘in suspense’ by the state.”

To solve the non-problem of voter fraud, in 2015 Kansas gave Mr. Kobach the power to prosecute such cases. So far, he has convicted nine people. Only last month did he convict his first and only noncitizen for voting fraud. The Kansas City Star noted the paltry results Mr. Kobach has to show for his unique prosecutorial powers, mocking him as the “Javert of voter fraud,” a reference to the obsessed police inspector of “Les Miserables.”

Now Mr. Kobach will be the driving force leading President Trump’s commission. Its purpose, no doubt, will be to cry wolf about voter fraud and push more states to pass harsh legislation to suppress the vote.

Unlike voter fraud, voter suppression is real and growing. The most significant outside factor in the 2016 campaign was not the scattered cases of voter fraud, or Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hacking, or even former FBI Director Comey’s interventions. The most significant factor was the suppression of the vote — particularly the African-American vote — in North Carolina, Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee. As Mr. Berman has argued, federal court records show that “300,000 registered voters, 9 percent of the electorate, lacked strict forms of voter ID in Wisconsin.” A recent study by Priorities USA, a Democratic PAC, estimated that Wisconsin’s harsh voter ID laws “reduced turnout by about 200,000 votes” — disproportionately African-American votes. President Trump won the state by 22,748 votes.

The 2016 election was the first in 50 years without the full protections of the federal Voting Rights Act. Fourteen states had new voting restrictions in effect for the first time. Now Mr. Berman reports, 87 bills to restrict access to the ballot have been introduced in 29 states this year. Arkansas and Iowa already have passed strict voter ID laws.

These bills are being pushed because they make it harder for certain communities to vote — and Republicans benefit when they vote in smaller numbers.

When politicians can pick their voters — by voter suppression laws, by gerrymandering, by big money campaigns — rather than voters picking their leaders, democracy is mocked. Political leaders in both parties should be pushing to make it easier — not harder — to vote.

Instead, voter suppression has become a partisan weapon. Our very democracy is under assault.

The writer is founder and president of the national Rainbow PUSH Coalition.