There seems to be a question of whether the media should provide platforms for Administration spokespersons who regularly use the airtime to disseminate falsehoods. “Truth matters,” Margaret Sullivan writes, and she worries that viewers will come away misled, as some might have last Sunday after Stephen Miller’s appearance in which he repeated the charge of “serious” voter fraud. But Sullivan misses the point that the Administration should be given every opportunity to say what it will on this subject (and others). We might regret that some in the audience, predisposed to believe these claims, may mistake them for facts. But Miller, following Trump, is helping, by speaking, to clarify the nature of this initiative, and it is important that it be understood.
One consequence of clear understanding will be the disinclination of true experts to participate in this process. Few with credibility will be anxious to sign up to validate the work of a Commission launched to validate a conclusion already reached. And, as Miller made clear, this conclusion rests on what “everyone”--at least everyone in New Hampshire--knows. It is hard to imagine who will take this “everyone knows” school of election administration seriously and risk their reputations by enrolling in it.
In the normal case, when a Commission-in-the-making is virtually founded on the rejection of expertise, its bid for respectability would be a long shot. But when its political purpose is plain, because it is the creation of candidates pursuing their own self-interest, it has no hope. The President’s staunchest political allies might stay with him on this, and he can count on groups that thrive on allegations of fraud. In the wider world of administrators and experts, both Democratic and Republican, the prospects of having to engage with this Commission will inspire dread.
This leaves members of this community with a couple of choices.
For all the talk about weaknesses in the electoral systems--about voter fraud or hacking or machine failure, or all of the above--experience with these types of claims or concerns suggests that, as matters of general public debate, they will soon fade. The rhetoric may linger, but little of use, such as practical reforms, is likely to follow.
This does not have to be the way the story ends. Six years ago, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration suggested at least two potentially helpful measures, one very concrete and urgent, and the other pressing but more politically complicated and so harder to execute. These reforms won’t satisfy everyone: they offer only so much to those with the darkest suspicions. But they would make a major difference in preventing a calamitous breakdown in the voting process and an even greater collapse of public confidence.
First, the Commission emerged from its study of various administrative problems to sound an alarm about the state of election equipment and voting technology. It elected to use the words "impending crisis”: It did so in the knowledge that election administrators across the country would not accuse it of exaggerating. What was leading inexorably toward crisis was:
The widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago, the lack of any voting machines on the market that meet the current needs of election administrators, a standard-setting process that is broken down, and a certification process for new machines that is costly and time-consuming.Jurisdictions looking to address the problem did not then, and most do not now, have enough money to do it, or to do it promptly.
The Commission also recommended that post-election audits of voting equipment should be conducted after each election "as part of a comprehensive audit program," with full disclosure about machine performance in a common data format. The Commission specifically endorsed both risk-limiting audits, intended to validate the election outcome with a sample of votes cast, and performance audits to address the question of whether the voting technology performed as required.
Donald Trump has urged his supporters to check closely for fraud and irregularities at the polling places. He wants them to make sure the voting is on the “up and up,” and he implies that there is a reason it might not be: he believes that there is a “big, big problem” which apparently “nobody has the guts to talk about.”
Rick Hasen, among others, has criticized Trump for claiming the widespread existence of a problem—impersonation voting fraud—which in fact occurs with extreme infrequency, and he worries that Trump supporters’ response to the demand that they somehow solve this “big, big problem” may intimidate voters, deterring some from exercising their right to vote. Hasen’s concern is fully justified.
This is not to suggest Trump or any other candidate should not expect, or should not do what he or she can, to help bring about an orderly election in which the rules, including the eligibility rules, are followed. There are any number of defensible “protect the vote” programs that his or any campaign, or political party, might put in place. But normally, the campaign or party defines the problem with precision, trains observers, and deploys lawyers to go about the task capably and responsibly. Instead Trump seems intent on issuing a alarm that any supporter can interpret as he or she wishes. The choice for Trump is not between measures to protect the vote and none at all, but between a genuine,competently structured program of voter protection and a wild political swing. That he chose the latter is deeply unfair to the voters.
Also not to be overlooked: It is also unfair to the election officials across the country charged with the hard work of running the polling places and deeply committed to professional,nonpartisan administration of the voting process. Some are Republicans, some Democrats, and some affiliate with neither party: it doesn’t matter. They do their jobs, often without adequate funding; they are the first to take the blame for anything that goes wrong. They persevere, a good many of them for years of relatively thankless service.
When the Presidential Commission on Election Administration held hearings around the country, the future of the Election Commission Administration came up regularly in discussions and testimony. The EAC had no Commissioners, and the concern was chiefly that it could not attend to its responsibility for voting machine standards and certification. There was also a sense that the absence of the EAC—amid indications of neglect, partisan stand-off, or both—highlighted the weakness of a national commitment to progress in professional election administration. The EAC was an invaluable resource for administrators, and, if it could steer clear of partisan conflict, it could perform a valuable service to the election administration community—and to the voters.
The EAC then got enough Commissioners for a quorum and full operations. This was a period of considerable promise, and those working in the field moved quickly to engage with the EAC. For example, early on Ben Ginsberg and I sent a letter urging that the newly functional Commission initiate steps to improve the standard-setting and certification process for voting machines. The Commission subsequently acted, and it did so unanimously. EAC-sponsored discussions in which former PCEA Commissioners and election administrators participated heightened the expectation that the Commission could help mark out the ground for professional administration even in a period of intense political and other conflict over voting rights. There were warm and encouraging words all around.
Brian Newby, appointed Executive Director in November of 2015, has quickly managed to put all of this at risk. Claiming authority to disregard past EAC policy and precedent--and understanding full well that he was ignoring disagreement among the Commissioners and provoking fresh partisan conflict--he purported to consent to state requests to modify the Federal Form for registration applicants to include a requirement of documentary proof of citizenship. On this highly visible and divisive issue, in the face of its long and actively litigated history, Newby concluded that this is what he should do.