The FEC got back into the news when Commissioner Weintraub issued a statement, posted to the FEC website and distributed via Twitter, that President Trump should produce some evidence to support his claim of voter fraud. An organization that calls itself Cause of Action filed a complaint with the FEC Inspector General, demanding an inquiry into whether the Commissioner’s expression of her views involved an impermissible diversion of government resources to a private political pursuit. Commissioner Weintraub replied that she would “not be silenced.”
One can only hope that in this demoralized agency, the IG finds better things to do. Just weeks ago, the President of the United States used Twitter to visit hell on a department store chain that discontinued his daughter's line of clothing. An FEC Commissioner’s use of a statement and a few hundred characters of twitter commentary to criticize the President’s voter fraud claims hardly seems the most compelling reason for concern about holding some line between the official and the personal.
Are Weintraub’s comments directly and squarely within the jurisdiction of the Commission, such that she can take some action in response to the President's failure to produce the requested evidence? No, but then again she rightly says that as a 13 year Commissioner, she should be free to take notice of any claims that bear on the integrity of elections. And she has tried, probably unnecessarily, to bolster her case by pointing out that anyone paying for busloads to come into New Hampshire to vote illegally may have committed a campaign finance violation.
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.
President Trump has more detail to provide on what he means by a “major investigation” into voter fraud. Already, however, he has drawn sharp objections to his preoccupation with illegal voting, including from within his own party and the National Association of Secretaries of State, on the basis that there is no evidence to support his claim. His own press secretary seems to have retreated to the position that "he [the president] believes what he believes."
But it cannot be lost in this debate that the President is taking an extraordinary step with the contrivance of some sort of “investigation,” whatever the form takes. He is moving, openly and aggressively and within days of his inauguration, to use his public office to advance his personal political interests as a candidate for office. One such interest, apparently, is to contest the popular vote count of the 2016 general election--his election. The second, it is fair to assume, is to do everything necessary to establish the fraud he is convinced is rampant and push for measures he deems helpful to his next election campaign.
The first of these objectives is quirky. It is not the usual course of events that a candidate challenges the outcome of an election that he won. But it is still his own election and he intends now, as President, to put the 2016 popular vote margin in question for his own political benefit, to satisfy--as he sees it--a political need.
The second of these interests is his own reelection. Until we learn otherwise, Mr. Trump will be a candidate for re-election in 2020. Now, as president, he intends to order up some investigation with implications for this candidacy. Critical commentators have touched on this concern to some degree, warning that this investigation might be intended to feed into the broader GOP initiative on voter ID and other restrictions on the franchise. The investigation would serve to spur proposals for further additional restrictions that, while unwarranted as policy but designed to burden voters, could discourage or impede voting primarily in communities with high Democratic support. This is a possible, perhaps even a likely, outcome, and it both deeply objectionable and sure to spark a new round of voting rights litigation. But the context in which the President has raised the issue is not his party’s programmatic attention to voter fraud, but his election, the 2016 election, and his conviction that it cost him millions of votes.