Farewell (So It Seems) to Pence Kobach

January 3, 2018
posted by Bob Bauer

It ended on the most ironic of notes for a Republican administration. In disbanding the Pence Kobach "voter fraud" commission, the federal government put the blame on a lack of cooperation from states. The fault-finding would normally run in the reverse direction: The “feds” are supposed to be the culpable party, bulldozing over state sovereignty. Come to think of it, that is how many states did view the blundering Pence Kobach operation. But in this case, with a need to pin the failure on someone, the White House did not find the federalist uprising at all to its liking.

The administration wisely shut this initiative down. Pence-Kobach generated nothing but bad press and became a magnet for lawsuits. It earned the distinction of being sued by, among other parties, one its own members. Unable to produce a report that would have been taken seriously anywhere, in courts or legislatures, where it might have counted, it was useless. Why, then, continue and sink even lower?

It is not clear what this experience teaches other than the trap that zealotry sets for itself. The Commission’s goal was exactly what its founding suggested: riding on the president’s claim that fraud denied him a popular vote victory in 2016, a mostly familiar cast of “vote fraud” crusaders hoped to slap a spanking new cover, marked “federal government-approved,” on their old tall tale about an electoral process corrupted through-and-through by illegal voting. The plan was certain to fail.

It is true that commission time and again stumbled badly. But what it set out to do would have been hard to pull off anyway. Across the states, the years following the Florida recount debacle have seen a sharpened, data-driven and sophisticated focus on the very real problems with election administration. There has been true progress, much of it bi-partisan, representing a major step toward vitally needed professionalism. Election officials, civil society organizations, scholars and policy experts have produced valuable research, and they have launched and collaborated on productive reform initiatives. Given its leadership, staffing and objectives, Pence Kobach stood no chance of hawking its counterfeit product to an informed election administration and reform community, or counting on it to let its sales job pass without critical comment.

Professor Lessig’s Electoral College Litigation

September 19, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

It happens often that calamitous election outcomes are attributed to democratic dysfunction, and reform proposals follow from there. Those Republicans who are not deeply cynical about voter ID--and there are a fair number of those--sincerely and mistakenly believe that they lose elections because of illegal voting. Years ago, they convinced themselves that structural bias would keep Democrats in power in the Congress until the nation adopted mandatory term limits. Democrats in 1971 famously believed Richard Nixon reinvented himself politically through dark manipulations of television advertising, and to weaken his reelection prospects, their ranks in the Congress enacted a short-lived law that limited candidate media expenditures.

Of course, not all reform proposals born of frustration are misconceived or doomed to fail. But there are risks, some of which are apparent in a new reform initiative from Professor Lawrence Lessig’s: litigation to establish that states may not allocate Electoral Votes on a winner-take-all basis (WTA). His argument is not entirely about a change in the rules to achieve preferred outcomes or prevent bad ones. He does contend that, by driving active campaigning to a handful of states, WTA limits meaningful participation in the election to a handful of states whose voters see the most paid advertising and enjoy--if that is right word--the most visits from candidates and their surrogates.

Professor Lessig’s next argument, however, is more political. He sees WTA as putting more power in the hands of older white voters in industrial heartland states. It is fairly clear, then, that this proposed litigation is a response to the election of 2016, grounded in the belief that a change in the allocation would work a shift in the balance of national political power. And we have seen a reaction like this before. In 2012, the Democratic nominee won Pennsylvania, and those who were bitter about WTA were Republicans state legislators who threatened to shift a Congressional-district based allocation. Indeed the same move among Republicans is now underway in the State of Virginia and Minnesota.

So this is one risk: guessing wrong, as the Republicans did in 2012. Had they succeeded then, the congressional district-based allocation of electoral votes would have benefited Hillary Clinton in 2016. Politics is not static, and the judgment about the political effects of specific allocations is hazardous.

Another risk is misreading, or reading narrowly, the requirements of democratic participation in the concrete setting of the politics of the era.

The Pence-Kobach Commission just conducted its first public hearing, and its leadership may have hoped to use the occasion to recover a degree of credibility or measure of respectability for its operations. If that was the plan, it did not work out well. The Vice Chair Kobach started the day in retreat from claims, published the Friday before, about illegal voting in the last New Hampshire Senate election. This is the latest example of his utter disregard of the facts and appetite for sweeping, false claims that have been enough to disqualify him as a serious participant in the national discussion of voting rights.It certainly makes a mockery of his leadership of a presidential Commission supposedly conducting an impartial inquiry into the risks of illegal voting.

Then the Campaign Legal Center released an informative email that it obtained by FOIA request to the Department of Justice for materials relating allegations of voting fraud in the 2016 election. An employee of the Heritage Foundation, whose identity was redacted, complained to DOJ about the inclusion in the Commission of any Democrats or “mainstream” Republicans. The author protested that Democrats would only obstruct a productive inquiry, and that “mainstream” Republicans and “academics” would be useless. The author admonishes the Administration to think twice about its embrace of bipartisanship and to consult with the Heritage experts who know something.

The email was sent in February of this year. In June, President Trump appointed one of these Heritage experts, Hans Von Spakovsky, to the Commission. It turns out that Von Spakovsky also wrote the email, a fact now confirmed by Heritage but originally denied by Von Spakovsky in response to an inquiry from ProPublica.

So the Administration chose to appoint to the Commission an individual who strongly objected to a bipartisan inquiry but also to a formal role for social scientists trained in data collection and dispassionate analysis. The story should not end there.

This is a piece I posted yesterday on Just Security on the campaign finance law issues raised by the facts emerging about the Trump campaign-Russia contacts. It responds in particular to the constitutional and related concerns that some commentators have expressed about an ostensibly expansive application of the law in these circumstances. ----

If the Trump campaign solicited support from Russians in the race against Hillary Clinton, did it, or any of its staff, have the mental state required for prosecution under federal criminal law? The discussion so far has largely centered on Donald Trump Jr.’s actions in scheduling the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, and for a number of commentators, the issue seems to be his own personal liability. Professor Andy Grewal has made the point that the bar for establishing criminal intent is high. He is not alone in this judgment. Professor Saikrishna Prakash agrees.

It is without doubt correct that people should not go to jail for breaking a law unless the rule they violate is clear and they had the requisite intent to violate it. This is, of course, especially imperative when they are engaged in core First Amendment-protected activities like participating in a political campaign.

In the case of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, however, this argument can be--and has been-- both overstated and misdirected. Now that Jared Kushner has provided his account of the meeting, there is additional material useful in analyzing the campaign’s culpability.

Moreover, in sorting out these issues, it is essential to keep in mind what conduct the campaign finance law does, or does not reach. Commentators like Professor Prakash and Eugene Volokh fear that even if the Trump campaign, its candidate and it senior staff sought and received Russian Government help, an overly expansive construction of the campaign finance laws to reach this conduct could present major constitutional risks. For example, journalists might be liable for seeking or accepting from foreign nationals information intended to damage a political candidacy. These concerns are also off the mark, because the there is nothing exceptional or overbroad in a reading of the law that covers the Trump campaign conduct.

A reader has asked whether I am abandoning this site for others in writing about the campaign finance issues in the Russia-Trump campaign matter. Not so. But I did agree to write on this subject for Just Security, and I have touched on other related issues for Lawfare


Here are the various Just Security postings grouped together. (One earlier posting relates to another subject altogether, but all the recent ones address the Trump campaign-Russia issues.)

Also, there are always interesting questions to be asked about the ethics of political speech and action, not just the governing law. I wrote for Lawfare yesterday on President Trump’s defense of the June 6 meeting at Trump Tower. He takes it to be nothing more than politics-as-usual. I question that.