It has been believed that the bedrock to our American democracy is that of the right to vote in free and fair elections. Samuel Adams best summarized this view by remarking “Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote...that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.”. Recently, President Trump has challenged this view by declaring, without evidence, that three to five million people voted illegally in the 2016 Presidential Election that he won. Not only has he repeated this claim in different fashions, he has established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and tasked it with validating his claim and preventing such an atrocity from ever happening again.
While many of this president’s actions are unprecedented, abusing executive authority to prevent minorities and the poor from voting is just another root in an ugly history of our nation.
Voter exclusion and intimidation have been commonplace since the founding of our nation. In the 18th century, the widely held belief was that only the aristocrats were wise enough to elect officials. Therefore, those without property, which was everyone except rich white men, were prohibited from casting ballots. Fast forward 100 years and African-American men have been granted the right to vote under the 15th Amendment. However many southern states were quick to institute poll taxes and literacy tests as a requirement for voting. Once again, powerful aristocrats found a way to disproportionately suppress the poor and minority vote. Even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women’s suffrage, our country still had not rid voter suppression. The intimidation tactics continued well into the 1960s, where it was not uncommon for minorities to be subjected to violence, and in extreme instances extrajudicial lynchings, for attempting to exercise their right to vote.
Now in the year 2017, something just short of a national emergency has been declared, and we have a Presidential Advisory Committee investigating unfounded claims of voter fraud. As NBC News reported in July, thousands of voters have left the rolls out of fear their personal information may be made public as the commission demands voter rolls and parts of voter social security numbers from each state. Voters leaving the rolls out of fear their personal information could be made public may not be an explicit ban on voting or an act of physical harm, but it is a form of intimidation and should be cause for concern for Americans across the political spectrum.
Early last month as I watched the most recent meeting of the advisory panel play out, it became evident to me that my fear of this commission being nothing more than another intimidation tactic was true. Prior to the meeting, Kansas Secretary of State and Commission vice chair Kris Koback wrote in a Breitbart News column that out-of-state voters illegally tipped New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate Election to the Democratic candidate, Maggie Hassan. While it is odd that the vice chair of a commission trying to portray itself as wholly nonpartisan would write a column in a right-wing news site run by the former political strategist to the President who created the commission, this only exemplifies the commission’s impure motives.
To begin, Secretary Kobach correctly states that only 1,014 of the 6,540 same-day registered voters in New Hampshire obtained drivers licenses in that state ten months after the election. He is also correct when he states only 213 of the 5,526 same day registrants who did not obtain a driver’s license registered their car in New Hampshire. Where Sec. Kobach goes astray is when he accuses these 5,313 same day registrant voters of committing voter fraud. In most states, including New Hampshire, holding a state driver’s license or registering your car in that state is not a prerequisite for voting. Yet, Sec. Kobach deceitfully insists these voters illicitly altered the course of American history.
The fact that a majority of these 5,526 same day registrant voters were likely out-of-state college students bring us to another form of modern day voter intimidation: misrepresenting the law to discourage college students from voting.. I myself hold a Maine driver’s license, but am a registered voter in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Like many other out-of-state college students, I chose to re-register in Virginia because Charlottesville feels like home and I am connected here. Since I spend a majority of nights here, under the law Virginia is my domicile meaning legislative matters such as the sales tax, maintenance of public facilities, and investment in education are all issues that affect my everyday life just as they do other Virginians who hold a driver’s license here. Equally, in the case of Virginia, the governor chooses the members of the UVA Board of Visitors. So while I may not know all of the issues facing Virginia (find me someone who does), I know my university and I am especially interested in the person who will be selecting the directors tasked with making decisions regarding it’s most pressing issues. If you are still not convinced I am worthy of voting in Virginia, I will also point out that I pay tuition and room and board to the Commonwealth of Virginia and when my parents come to town to visit, they contribute thousands of dollars to the local economy by staying in local hotels and eating at local restaurants.
Additionally, voting in person is much simpler than requesting an absentee ballot by mail. Doing so would cost me postage to mail the ballot back to Maine and if the election victory margin is more than the total number of absentee ballots cast, my ballot would not even be counted.
In a country with a voter participation rate laughable to that of other western Democracies — on average only 53.6% of Americans cast ballots in the 2012 federal election compared to 87.2% of Belgians in their 2014 federal election — we should be focused on mechanisms to make voting more accessible and easier for Americans. Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars on a commission that investigates the menial, if not nonexistent, fraud of the 53.6% who do vote, we should be investing in a commission that investigates why the 46.4% of eligible voters do not vote. Instead of finger pointing and distorting the facts, our elected officials should be highlighting the civic value of voting and encouraging broad participation.
America has made several strides in the right direction to live up to our promise of being an inclusive democracy for all. The ratification of the 15th, 19th, 23rd, 24th and 26th Amendments to the Constitution have reinforced this vision, but the actions of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity have only served as a reminder we are far from finished in completing the work necessary to fully live up to that promise.