clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

At least 44 states have rejected the Trump voter fraud commission’s sweeping data request

One Republican secretary of state even told the commission to “jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

President-elect Donald Trump and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach shortly after the 2016 election.
President-elect Donald Trump and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach shortly after the 2016 election.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At least 44 states have rejected a sweeping information request from President Donald Trump’s “election integrity” commission — including the office of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who’s one of the two men heading the commission and who sent out the request.

CNN surveyed all 50 states after the commission last Wednesday sent out a letter to states asking them to provide all sorts of information about voters, including names, addresses, party affiliation, electoral participation history, and the last four digits of Social Security numbers. CNN found that the great majority of states won’t comply with the full request, including Kobach’s own Kansas and other Republican-controlled states.

In short, most of the states said the request went too far by asking for confidential voter data that shouldn’t be made public. The commission acknowledged in its letter that the information it receives “will also be made available to the public.” It also asked states to upload the information to a website, which some states worried will never be fully secure from hackers.

Based on CNN’s tally, only Colorado, Missouri, and Tennessee seemed to have anything positive to say about the commission’s request. Florida, Hawaii, Nebraska, and New Jersey didn’t return CNN’s requests for comment or are still reviewing the request, and Arkansas and Illinois apparently did not receive the letter yet and refused to comment.

Trump established the commission earlier this year after he went on multiple rants on Twitter and elsewhere about widespread voter fraud costing him the popular vote in the 2016 election. There is absolutely no evidence to support Trump’s claim, and the evidence from multiple studies overwhelmingly suggests that voter fraud is extremely rare. But the president nonetheless moved forward with his commission, which many experts speculate is a confirmation-bias expedition — meant to find any evidence that can be spun to give Trump’s claim some credibility.

Kobach has insisted that’s not the case. “First of all, the commission is not to prove or disprove what the president speculated about in January," he told CNN. “The purpose of the commission is to find facts and put them on the table. Importantly, it’s a bipartisan commission.”

But a lot of states aren’t buying it. At the very least, they’re not buying it enough to provide their confidential data to the federal government.

Why states said no

Generally, the states rejected at least part of the Trump commission’s request because it asked for information that is confidential. The Trump commission emphasized that it only wanted “publicly available” data, so confidential data doesn’t have to be disclosed.

Kobach’s office in Kansas generally followed other states, saying it will only provide “publicly available” information. “Any person in Kansas can obtain it. It is the basic information — name, address, etc. — not the sensitive information like last four SSN. That information is not publicly available, and therefore it is not part of the request,” a spokesperson told CNN.

This kind of statement was typical of both Republican and Democratic states, which repeatedly emphasized they will only provide publicly available information — meaning data that’s generally obtainable with a public records request.

Some states — like Colorado, Missouri, and Tennessee — praised Kobach’s request, but also made it clear they will not release all the information the commission asked for.

“We are very glad they are asking for information before making decisions,” Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican, said in a statement. “I wish more federal agencies would ask folks for their opinion and for information before they made decisions.”

Other states, both Republican- and Democrat-led, took a more fiery approach — suggesting that the Trump commission was way out of line.

“The President’s Commission has quickly politicized its work by asking states for an incredible amount of voter data that I have, time and time again, refused to release,” Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, a Republican, said in a statement. “My response to the Commission is, you’re not going to play politics with Louisiana’s voter data, and if you are, then you can purchase the limited public information available by law, to any candidate running for office. That’s it.”

“My reply would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great State to launch from,” Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, said in a statement. “Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our State’s right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes.”

“I do not intend to release Kentuckians’ sensitive personal data to the federal government,” Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, said in a statement. “The president created his election commission based on the false notion that ‘voter fraud’ is a widespread issue — it is not. Indeed, despite bipartisan objections and a lack of authority, the President has repeatedly spread the lie that three to five million illegal votes were cast in the last election. Kentucky will not aid a commission that is at best a waste of taxpayer money and at worst an attempt to legitimize voter suppression efforts across the country.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, argued that the request and the commission in general are based on falsehoods. “I have serious reservations about the true intentions of this effort in light of the false statements this administration has made regarding voting integrity, the historical suppression of voting rights, and the way that such data has been used in the past,” he said, adding that the commission may buy some of the data it’s requesting for $20 at, “like any citizen.”

For the full list of states’ statements, check out CNN’s survey.

In response, Trump suggested on Twitter that states are trying to hide something.

But states — which, again, include Republican-controlled states — say that they are just trying to keep private information private, instead of handing it over to the federal government and potentially putting it at risk.

Voter fraud is extremely rare

The entire basis for the commission is Trump’s insistence that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election. But there have been multiple investigations — by academics, journalists, and nonpartisan think tanks — into voter fraud. None found evidence of anything close to millions of people voting illegally, as Trump has alleged.

Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt studied voter impersonation, the type of fraud that strict voter ID laws (which Trump supports) aim to curtail. Levitt found 35 total credible accusations between 2000 and 2014, constituting a few hundred ballots at most. During this 15-year period, more than 800 million ballots were cast in national general elections and hundreds of millions more were cast in primary, municipal, special, and other elections.

A 2012 investigation by the News21 journalism project looked at all kinds of voter fraud nationwide, including voter impersonation, people voting twice, vote buying, absentee fraud, and voter intimidation. It confirmed that voter impersonation was extremely rare, with just 10 credible cases.

But the other types of fraud weren’t common either: In total, the project uncovered 2,068 alleged election fraud cases from 2000 through part of 2012, covering a time span when more than 620 million votes were cast in national general elections alone. That represents about 0.000003 alleged cases of fraud for every vote cast, and 344 fraud cases per national general election, in each of which between 80 million and 135 million people voted. The number of fraudulent votes was a drop in the bucket.

What’s more, not all — maybe not even half — of these alleged fraud cases were credible, News21 found: “Of reported election-fraud allegations in the database whose resolution could be determined, 46 percent resulted in acquittals, dropped charges or decisions not to bring charges.”

Another, more recent investigation in North Carolina by the State Board of Elections similarly found just one — out of nearly 4.8 million total votes in 2016 — credible case of in-person voter fraud. That amounts to just 0.00002 percent of all votes. Other types of fraud were very rare as well: Although there were more than 500 ineligible votes, the State Board of Election found that almost all of these were due to people negligently voting when they genuinely thought they were allowed to vote but legally weren’t. It was simply not the case that there were a lot of people trying to rig the election.

Meanwhile, the one report that Trump has cited in his support does not actually provide evidence of voter fraud. A 2012 report from the Pew Center on the States, which Trump and others in his administration have pointed to, looked at more technical aspects of voter registration systems, and how America could save money by upgrading how it registers voters. It found that more than 1.8 million registered voters were actually dead, while 2.75 million had registrations in more than one state.

But that doesn’t mean that even one of these registrations was used for illegal votes. America has a multi-step system for voting: You register, then vote. The report only shows that people registered and were never taken off the rolls. They didn’t even have to register for the latest election — some of them registered for the 2008 election, then died or moved, and states just didn’t take them off their rolls. So someone could have registered in Ohio in 2008, moved to Pennsylvania by 2012, and simply forgotten to notify Ohio’s elections system that he had moved — even though he never had any intention of voting in Ohio again.

For example, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, reportedly voted for Trump in New York. But it turns out that he was also still registered to vote in Florida last year, because he never officially deregistered in the Sunshine State, even though he didn’t vote there.

As a result, David Becker, who worked on the 2012 Pew report, unequivocally said that the report found “zero evidence of fraud.”

Critics worry the commission is setting the groundwork for voter suppression

In the past, Republicans have used rhetoric like Trump’s to justify widespread voter suppression efforts. This commission, experts and advocates worry, could do the same.

More than a dozen states had new voting restrictions in place for the 2016 election, from strict photo ID requirements to new limits on early voting. Republican leaders have also embraced other tactics that limit people’s ability to vote, including purging voter rolls, going after voter registration groups, and closing down polling places. These efforts were all emboldened by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that weakened the Voting Rights Act, which banned discrimination at the voting booth, by limiting federal oversight of changes certain states make to their voting laws.

States’ measures typically target voter impersonation. They often require a certain kind of ID to vote; Texas, for example, allows government-issued IDs (including concealed gun permits) but not student IDs. This, obviously, makes it much harder for someone to impersonate another voter, although it can also make it much harder for someone to vote if they don’t have the time or resources to obtain a proper ID.

But states’ voting restrictions can also take other steps that don’t seem to target fraud so much as make voting more difficult. North Carolina’s law, for example, also eliminated some early voting days, ended same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting, and stopped the preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds in the state.

Experts and advocates worry that Trump’s commission could be used to justify similar restrictions at the federal level. “Normally I have more confidence in the integrity of an investigation that doesn’t announce the conclusion before the investigation starts,” Levitt of Loyola Law School previously told me. “It sure looks like there’s an answer that there’s now to be an investigation to find the facts for.”

For example, if the investigation finds, like the 2012 Pew report did, that there are millions of outdated voter registrations, Trump and Republicans could stretch that finding to justify a national voter ID law or mass purge of the voter rolls.

When states have done that, it’s led to many legitimate voters losing access to the ballot without any notification, simply because they didn’t update their addresses or didn’t read their mail, or officials used faulty databases for their purges.

And if Trump wants to pursue a massive voter purge, he could, citing his fear of undocumented immigrants voting, use an existing federal database for it: the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements database (SAVE), which is used to identify immigrants eligible for social services.

States like Colorado, Florida, Iowa, and North Carolina have tried to use SAVE in the past for voter purges. But the Obama administration warned that the database wasn’t designed for it and could mistakenly flag immigrants who’d since become US citizens — which is exactly what happened. The result: Potentially thousands of people were wrongly removed from the voter rolls. Many more could be wrongly removed if Trump takes a similar path.

The concern with these types of measures is they tend to have a disproportionate impact on minority voters, who — conveniently for Republicans — are more likely to vote Democrat. For example, since minority Americans are less likely to have flexible work hours or own cars, they might have a harder time affording a voter ID or getting to the right place (typically a DMV or BMV office) to obtain a voter ID, rely more on early voting opportunities to cast a ballot, or require a nearby voting place instead of one that’s a drive, instead of a walk, away from home or work.

Some Republicans have even admitted that this is the goal of the new wave of voting restrictions. As William Wan reported for the Washington Post:

Longtime Republican consultant Carter Wrenn, a fixture in North Carolina politics, said the GOP’s voter fraud argument is nothing more than an excuse.

"Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?" he said, explaining that Republicans, like any political party, want to protect their majority. While GOP lawmakers might have passed the law to suppress some voters, Wrenn said, that does not mean it was racist.

"Look, if African Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican, they would have kept early voting right where it was," Wrenn said. "It wasn’t about discriminating against African Americans. They just ended up in the middle of it because they vote Democrat."

Now, the research shows that voter ID laws and other voting restrictions have a fairly small overall impact on elections, at most reducing turnout by a percentage point or two.

But even if voting restrictions don’t have a big effect on the ultimate outcome of elections, they still appear to disproportionately keep minority voters from exercising their most basic democratic right — a problem no matter how you slice it. And it’s a problem that’s perpetuated through a total myth: a false claim that there’s a lot of voter fraud in America when the evidence simply shows otherwise.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.