In 2016, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson found that state election officials were suspicious of federal offers of assistance in defending their voting systems from cyber attack. He tried to persuade them to accept DHS designation of those systems as “critical infrastructure,” which would have given states access on a priority basis to a range of protections. The response he received ranged from “neutral to negative.” DHS concluded that, in the middle of an election, it was best not to have a protracted, politicized fight over this step. It focused on providing assistance where it could, and a large number of jurisdictions requested help. In January 2017, even with officials remaining skeptical about the designation, Secretary Johnson proceeded to issue it.

According to Johnson, and as further reflected in reporting by The Washington Post, election officials resisting this engagement with the federal government viewed it as a threat to” states rights.” At least one, Brian Kemp of Georgia, suspected that the Administration might be using the claimed Russian interference as a ploy to advance the political prospects of its favored candidate, Hillary Clinton.  Kemp and others were not convinced that the Obama Administration had properly fixed blame on the Russians. Congressional Republican leadership stayed close to their state allies on these points, also stressing the rights of states and declining to embrace the finding of Russian intrusions.

This is a revealing part of the 2016 story: government at war with itself, in the grip of partisanship, when under cyber attack from a foreign government. The attack was directed at the electoral process, and yet it was still not enough to produce a unified, fully coordinated federal and state response. For all the progress in bipartisan election administrative reform in recent years--and there has been a fair measure of it--Johnson’s account exposes key, and altogether familiar, structural obstacles.

In apparent haste, with not all its members appointed, the President issued the executive order establishing the Pence vote fraud Commission. The appointments still to come will add only marginally to an understanding of this Commission’s objectives. As the Order is written, and with the naming of Kansas Secretary of State Kobach as Vice Chair, those objectives are clear, and the outcome not hard to forecast. And yet there are extraordinary features to the Commission, none of them surprising, and none are the result of error or lack of foresight.

Begin with the leadership:

The Chair is the Vice President of the President who has announced that millions of illegal votes were cast in the last election, all against him (or for his opponent). Now Mr. Kobach, as Vice Chair, has joined the leadership ranks as a public supporter of the President’s claims.  He has said that the “White House has provided enormous evidence with respect to voter fraud.” This is untrue.   As for the problem of non-citizen voting, Kobach has asserted that there is a “lot of evidence” of it. This is also untrue. The larger point is that the Vice Chair of the Commission has reached these conclusions long ago, before a day of testimony or an hour of deliberation. What are the chances that this Commission will arrive at judgments contrary to the ones asserted so confidently by the President--and echoed by Mr. Kobach whose bid for national prominence rests on loudly ringing the alarm about voter fraud?

Now, onto the Commission's purposes:

The Pence Commission on Voting Fraud

February 8, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

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

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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.

The State of the Political Reform Program, Post-Election

November 14, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

With two elections within sixteen years won by the candidate who lost the popular vote, it is a natural turn that the Electoral College moves higher on the reform agenda. There remain other items for consideration: the state of the political parties, campaign finance, and voting rights. The question is: in what ways will the substance of reform, and its timing or tactics, be affected by the outcome of this election?

1. Attention to the Electoral College is now heightened at a time of mounting impatience with the other ways in which the electoral process deviates from the expectation that the most votes should decide. James Ceaser has correctly said that we've arrived at the point in our political culture that it is, if not unthinkable, difficult in the extreme to stand against the principle that the person with the most votes wins. So Republican leadership balked at any program to stop Trump at least in part because they struggled to explain how the nomination could somehow be denied to the candidate in a field of 17 who won by far the most contests and the most votes. The Democrats have run into similar problems with the role of super-delegates.

The case against the Electoral College is strengthened considerably by this strong trend in popular expectation. Whether we will see sustained momentum for reform is a different question.

2. Meanwhile, what about the parties? Ezra Klein has come to the view that parties may be weak but partisanship runs high, and that this complicated combination explains a good bit of what some see to have gone wrong with the nominating processes. Parties do not mediate voter choice: it is not accepted that they should step in against the candidates the voters favor and compel an alternative choice presented as superior in experience, governing credentials, or electability. So the voters decide, and once they have decided, the parties and their partisan fall into line. As Klein explains it, this is the worst of all worlds: weak parties, high partisanship.

The absence of strong parties on the traditional model has been keenly felt in this way, and perhaps in other less visible ones. For example, candidates now rely upon polling data to shape strategy and to adjust as necessary to changed political conditions. All of this is done at headquarters, shaped by sophisticated analytics. And the analytics are highly advanced. A modern campaign cannot operate without them. But genuinely strong parties are built on something more. They would have good intelligence "on the ground" delivered by seasoned party officials and operatives. The state and local party would speak authoritatively on local conditions. It pick up quickly on changes in those conditions not easily accessible through polling.

The voting rights and campaign finance wars have been fought on terrain largely shaped by two major and controversial decisions: the Crawford case on voter ID requirements, and Citizens United on independent spending. Critics have lamented Crawford’s naiveté about the stated value and inevitable partisan misuses of ID requirements, but it seemed that supporters had going for them the “common sense” judgment that voters required to have an ID to board a plane can be reasonably asked to produce one to vote. So one might have thought that Crawford was here to stay, even as the Justice who wrote for the Court, John Paul Stevens, has expressed regret.

Citizens United got more bad press in many quarters for opening up direct corporate political spending and for giving a boost to Super PACs. Its author, Anthony Kennedy, continues to defend it. He points to the silver lining: the court’s brief, arguably cursory, salute to disclosure, even as Kennedy concedes it is not yet working in practice as he had hoped it would. The critics who think the court flipped open the Pandora’s Box of campaign finance have put whatever hopes on the antidote of disclosure, and more speculatively on a constitutional amendment to overturn the case’s core permissiveness.

In light of developments of recent weeks, it is interesting to consider where the law set in motion by these cases is heading.