President Trump’s arrangement for an inquiry into election voting fraud is fatally compromised by political self-interest. Before the November election, he insisted that voter fraud might cost him the victory. After he had won, he decided that it robbed him of success in the popular vote. He put the number of illegal voters at 3 to 5 million, all of it allegedly committed at his expense.
And having taken this position, he is not only looking back. He is already a candidate for reelection, and this project would serve his purpose of reducing the risk of another popular vote disappointment. So he will establish a presidential commission to look into voting fraud, and he intends to appoint as its chair his Vice President, who was his presidential running mate in the last election and will very probably be on the ticket again 2020
This process has lacked credibility from the start, and if it were only a matter of appreciating the nature and limitations of this political project, then not much more attention would need to be paid to it. But in what happens next, once this Pence Commission is formed and launched, the long-term cost to bipartisanship in voting reform could prove high.
There has been to this point room for bipartisan cooperation on election reform, and it has been productive. This is not to say that the political parties don’t fight over these issues, and sue each other, or that self-interest and outright chicanery is not evident in legislation, regulation, administrative interpretation and positions taken in litigation. But there has been over the same time that the “voting wars” have broken out, Democrats, Republicans, and others have done what they could to figure out where, in the interests of voters, the partisan brawling could give way to measured, professionally disciplined discussion of real problems and feasible reforms to improve the voting experience for all citizens.
This cooperation has occurred in support of special studies like the one undertaken by the Presidential Commission on Election Reform. It continues through other programs, such as those sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. BPC in fact recruited to this work a former Commission member, a Democrat, and a former Republican Secretary of State, a Republican, who were paired in the leadership of this work. The Commission, the BPC and other similar initiatives have counted on, received and benefitted enormously from engagement on a bipartisan basis with the National Association of Secretaries of State, the National Association of Election Directors and other election administration professionals. These relationships provide access to reliable information and to the best judgment of experienced officials and experts. The keys are bipartisanship and professionalism.
Should the Pence Commission also count on this support? The President has said there is widespread fraud: he has put a large number on it. What are the chances that his Vice President will oversee the development of a refutation? Who will testify before such a Commission with the confidence that their views, if incompatible with the President’s, will be welcome–or will not be presented selectively in the subsequent report to fit with the regular repeated and tweeted presidential narrative? Which experts will wish to be noted for their contribution to a Report that may reasonably be predicted to lack balance, and suffer from intentional or just careless misrepresentations, misinterpretations and “alternative facts?” In what ways will their testimony be used? Or should they have confidence that the Vice President’s Commission will call it as it sees it, and conceivably put out a Report headlined as a repudiation of the president’s position– then used in the coming years in voting rights litigation against Republican party’s, and perhaps also the President and Vice President’s, political interests?
These issues could lead to a Commission that cannot get the information or advice it needs, and all the weaker for its dependence on only what it can get–which may be all that it wants. It will struggle to publish anything laying claim to being authoritative or useful.
A presidential commission is ideally a forum to escape or moderate political conflict, while this one, more of a presidential candidate’s commission, is an escalation. After all the energy put into clearing whatever space can be found for bipartisanship, and after the progress on issues like online voter registration, cooperation in the management of registration lists, and the development and sharing of techniques to reduce lines, this is a shame.
And the damage it will do is not so much to rigor and objectivity in addressing the specific, and indeed the only, issue it is concerned with. Expectations for this enterprise are low and there is a large supply of professionals knowledgeable about election administration ready to scrutinize the results. It is in breaking sharply with the bipartisan, professional reform movement that the Pence Commission will make its name, and for which it will be remembered, with deep regret.