Opinion

Opinion | Richard North Patterson

The very real threat of voter suppression

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/AP

At the request of Senate Democrats, the Government Accountability Office is investigating President Trump’s voter fraud commission.

Despite recent successes in Virginia and elsewhere, Democrats are right to worry — about 2018 and beyond. The GOP is bent on suppressing Democratic turnout, and Trump has doubled down.

Falsely, he claims that 3 to 5 million illegal votes were cast in 2016. On this pretext, he has deployed the Justice Department to support voter suppression, and convened his kangaroo commission to weaponize the cause — targeting minorities.

The civil rights laws of 1964 transformed voting patterns: As Southern whites flocked to the GOP, the party appealed nationwide to voters beset by racial anxiety. Its focus became turning out whites while turning away minorities.

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A principal tool was legislation requiring voters to produce government-issued identification. No evidence of voter fraud warranted their passage. Instead, these laws affected people too poor or overworked to obtain the IDs specified.

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The Voting Rights Act required Justice Department preclearance of changes to voting laws in states with a history of discrimination. But in 2013, a Republican majority on the Supreme Court ruled that racial progress in the South rendered preclearance unnecessary. With unseemly alacrity, 14 states — eight Southern, all but one governed by Republicans — triggered strict voter ID laws.

Within hours, Texas resurrected a voter ID law twice blocked by the federal courts. The DOJ challenged it as discriminatory. Citing an extensive record, a federal judge found that the law existed “because of . . . [its] detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate” — specifically, that the approximately 600,000 Texans prospectively precluded from voting were disproportionately minorities.

That such laws exist for precisely this purpose was spelled out by a Republican legal scholar, US Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner of Chicago, in a scathing dissent to a decision by a conservative federal court of appeals upholding two GOP state laws.

“[R]epeated investigations,” Posner affirmed, “show that there is virtually no in-person voter fraud nationally.” Surveying nine states that passed the most restrictive voter ID laws, he notes that all are politically conservative and governed by Republicans. He then demonstrated that poor and minority voters are less likely to have IDs such as driver’s licenses, because they lack money, time, or easy access to the relevant agencies. Such laws, Posner concluded, exist only “to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party [enacting them].”

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Indeed. When the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit directed the lower-court judge in Texas to determine whether the Republican legislature had knowingly targeted blacks and Hispanics, Trump’s DOJ reversed its position and actively supported the law.

Upon review, the lower-court judge found that Texas deliberately intended to disenfranchise minorities. The DOJ is backing Texas’s effort to have the law reinstated – an appeal that Chief Justice Roberts, a lifetime opponent of the Voting Rights Act, has implicitly invited. A Supreme Court ruling favoring Texas would license Republicans nationwide to disenfranchise millions of minority Americans – slanting elections in favor of Trump and the GOP.

That’s why Trump’s commission exists — to perpetuate the myth of voter fraud and refine the art of voter suppression.

Its chairman is Mike Pence; its vice-chairman, Kansas’s Republican secretary of state, Kris Kobach, is a leading practitioner of voter exclusion. This in a year when, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, more states have already enacted new voting restrictions than in the prior two years combined.

Kobach has just begun. Upon Trump’s election, he proposed a federal law allowing states to demand documentary proof of citizenship for new registrants – mirroring a requirement in Kansas that blocked 30,000 new voters from registering, at least for a time, and thousands from voting. Kobach advocates the “Interstate Crosscheck System,” a program purporting to identify people registered in multiple states — and which, for every double-voter, returns 200 false positives. This is not ineptitude; it is deliberate and malign.

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And partisan. Kobach now asserts that over 6,000 New Hampshire voters in 2016 were nonresidents who registered using out-of-state driver’s licenses. The fraud is his – this number includes college students who legally vote in New Hampshire while attending school there. Another member of Trump’s commission, the voter suppression fanatic Hans von Spakovsky, wrote Attorney General Jeff Sessions complaining that his colleagues included Democrats and mainstream Republicans. Clearly, such ideological deviates might not pursue the commission’s true agenda – repelling voters likely to favor Democrats.

Says representative Elijah Cummings, “I am old enough to remember when African-Americans were denied access to the ballot box, and I fear that we are watching history repeat itself.” We are.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.