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.

No chance–unless, of course, the commission withdrew into secrecy and barred the doors against knowledgeable critics. It tried this and only made matters fatally worse for itself. The Commission first lacked a credible mission or program for accomplishing it, and then looked to get around the problem by engaging in procedural irregularities mostly for the purpose of shutting out informed, dissenting points of view. At that point, Pence Kobach began to come apart from within, as a fight it could not survive broke about among its commissioners.

Pence Kobach’s collapse is in part a measure of positive changes occurring in election administrative practice and reform. One does not have to exaggerate the change or, certainly, minimize the serious battles over issues like “voter ID,” to appreciate how far the field has advanced in the last 17 years. There was no place in it for an enterprise like Pence Kobach.

The “next courses of action,” the White House states, rest with the Department of Homeland Security, which Mr. Trump has directed “to review these issues.” The question now is whether, having closed its own doors, Pence Kobach is truly shutting down, or the administration is moving this show with the help of different personnel to new quarters.

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