It may have sounded like a simple undertaking that wouldn’t attract much attention and might advance a worthy purpose: Set up a presidential commission on election integrity, ask for relevant data from the states, identify problems and offer solutions. But when President Donald Trump tried it, he found the effort is not so easy.
The panel burst into the news when it asked states to provide “publicly available voter data as permitted under their state laws,” which doesn’t sound alarming. Vice Chairman Kris Kobach said, “Whatever a person on the street can walk in and get, that’s what we would like.” Included in the information it would like to get about registered voters are what elections they’ve voted in, any felony convictions and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.
If this information is already public, it’s hard to see why it shouldn’t be furnished to a presidential commission. And 20 states promptly agreed to share at least some of the data.
Some secretaries of state perceived a grave affront. Louisiana’s Tom Schedler, a Republican, denounced the request as “federal intrusion and overreach.” Responded Mississippi’s Delbert Hosemann, another Republican, “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Some of this push back looks like old-fashioned distrust of Washington. Some of it looks like grandstanding. But some of it stems from legitimate questions about the whole point of the exercise. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said his “participation would only serve to legitimize the false and already debunked claims of massive voter fraud.”
The panel arose after Trump charged that at least 3 million people voted illegally last year, costing him the popular vote. That claim is conspicuously devoid of persuasive evidence and appears to be a fantasy.
But it’s a mistake to think there is no problem to address. The Pew Center on the States reported in 2012 that nationally, the voting rolls included 1.8 million dead people and some 3 million people registered to vote in more than one state.
Those numbers don’t translate into equivalent amounts of illegal voting, but they do suggest the need to rid the lists of ineligible voters. A few shoplifters won’t affect Walmart’s bottom line, and a few illegal ballots won’t decide an election, but those facts are no argument for ignoring such conduct. A presidential commission could be a force for overdue improvements, such as getting states to share more information.
But progress is likely to come only from the right kind of panel — independent, bipartisan, respected. This one falls short. It lacks prominent Democrats. Its records will be kept in the White House rather than the General Services Administration, as the president originally said, raising fears of who will have access to them and how they will be used.
A strong commitment to privacy would also help. By putting so many voting records in a single federal repository, the commission may invite hacking. The reaction of even GOP secretaries of state suggests the privacy concerns are genuine and widespread.
If the administration were willing to broaden the panel to ensure its independence, tighten its privacy safeguards and address reasonable complaints from state officials, it would have a better case for proceeding. Done right, the project could lead to worthwhile changes on a matter of some importance. It’s not too late to do it right.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE