Vanita Gupta: Aim of Pence-Kobach commission is voter suppression

  • Gupta

For the Monitor
Published: 9/11/2017 8:00:12 PM

As the home of the “first in the nation” primary, New Hampshire plays a special role in our democracy. It is a role based entirely on citizens freely exercising our most fundamental right – the right to vote. It is a right that Americans have fought, bled and died to protect throughout our history. Today, that basic right is under assault by President Donald Trump and his administration.

Shortly after his inauguration, Trump pushed the bogus claim that “thousands” of people were bused into New Hampshire from Massachusetts to vote illegally, a falsehood that New Hampshire election officials and even Granite State Republicans immediately discredited. That myth followed other outrageously false statements from the president, including that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton only because “three to five million people” voted illegally. To be clear, there is no proof of widespread illegal voting or voter fraud in the 2016 election – or in any American election. But that didn’t stop Trump from creating a sham commission to try to justify the unjustifiable.

That commission, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and the discredited Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, quickly assembled a team of voter suppression all-stars to pursue the administration’s assault on the right to vote in America. Pence and Kobach were joined on the commission by Hans von Spakovsky, J. Christian Adams and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, all men who built their careers trying to suppress the vote, particularly for seniors, students and people of color.

The commission got off to a rough start, sparking a national uproar in June when it requested that state election officials provide the commission with sensitive and highly personal information like voter names, dates of birth, party affiliation, partial Social Security numbers, criminal history and voting history over the past 10 years. The request, a massive invasion of privacy that was immediately challenged in court, should trouble fiercely independent Granite State voters.

After this data request was made, thousands of Americans across the country proactively canceled their voter registration in fear that their information would be compromised. Indeed, the commission could use the data to create a national voter database for the first time in U.S. history, and it could be used to unlawfully purge voters with identical names and birth dates.

The commission has made other missteps as well. A federal judge reprimanded the commission for failing to publicly disclose information about its first meeting, and just recently the commission appears to have violated federal law by using private email accounts to conduct official government business and get around federal disclosure rules.

The commission will hold its second meeting on Tuesday in New Hampshire. In the run-up to the meeting, Kobach wrote an article for the discredited Breitbart website that recycled President Trump’s bogus claim about thousands of illegal votes being cast last year in New Hampshire. Like other such fantastical claims and accusations, Kobach’s allegations were incorrect and easily debunked. This incident illustrates the danger of making specious claims based on incomplete data and poor analysis, which is exactly what the commission seeks to do nationally.

The Pence-Kobach commission should be immediately disbanded. It is a complete waste of taxpayer dollars, and Congress should block any federal funds from being used to fund the commission’s work. Congress should conduct vigorous oversight of the commission’s efforts, which are an affront to our democracy.

Instead of looking for ways to restrict the vote, which is the unspoken mission of the commission, we should be looking for ways to expand the vote. There are many steps that Congress and states can take to make voting easier and expand citizen participation. These include restoring the Voting Rights Act, creating automatic voter registration systems and ending the use of voter ID laws. And it also includes expanding access to early voting, something that New Hampshire has unfortunately restricted, but that has clearly proven to increase participation in elections in other states.

The right to vote is foundational and enables all the other rights we cherish. Protecting the sanctity of our electoral system is an American issue, not a partisan one. The Pence-Kobach commission has other designs, and I urge Granite Staters, and people throughout the nation, to be vigilant. We must defend our democracy.

(Vanita Gupta, the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was a head of the civil rights division at the Justice Department in the Obama administration.)

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