Donald Trump's Presidential Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity brings to mind the joke about a man who stood on a street corner snapping his fingers. A passer-by asked him what he was doing. "Keeping the rhinoceroses away," the man explained. There aren't any rhinoceroses around here, the passerby said. "See?" the man answered. "It's working."
The voter integrity commission is snapping its fingers, demanding that state elections officials provide data on 200 million voters — names, party affiliations, birth dates, criminal records, voting histories and partial Social Security numbers. The commission is looking for the rhinoceros that President Trump claims denied him a popular-vote victory in the 2016 elections: massive voter fraud. The commission can be expected to take credit when it finds that voter fraud is extremely rare.
Elections officials in at least 22 states have said they cannot or will not comply with the demand for information. One of the more embarrassing refusals came from Kansas, whose secretary of state, Kris Kobach, is vice chairman of the commission. Privacy laws in Kansas prevent the disclosure of some of the information the commission requested. The refusals are bipartisan: Democrat-led states such as California and Massachusetts rejected the request, while Mississippi's Republican secretary of state said commission members "can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico."
A more measured response came from Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican. Richardson took the opportunity to explain the benefits of Oregon's vote-by-mail and automatic voter registration systems, which result in high participation and low fraud rates. He said that 15 people have been indicted or convicted of voter fraud since 2000 — fewer than one per year. Such fraud usually takes the form of a voter signing the ballot of a spouse or a student who is away at college.
Richardson then offered to send the commission the same voter information that is available to anyone upon receipt of the standard $500 fee. He said state law prevents him from providing such personal information as driver's license or Social Security numbers. He then warned the commission that it would be a crime to use Oregon's voter registration data for commercial purposes.
This is the proper response: The commission deserves no better and no worse treatment than any other party. Voter information that is a matter of public record should be provided promptly and at a reasonable cost. Information that is protected by privacy laws should be guarded.
The commission hopes to gather all this information so that it can be compared to other federal databases, such as lists of non-citizen residents and undocumented immigrants who have been arrested. Trump's expectation is that many matches would be found: "What are they hiding?" Trump tweeted Saturday after he was informed that many states would not grant the commission's request for information. That's Kobach's expectation as well — his claim that voter fraud is rampant in Kansas and elsewhere led to his appointment to the commission. Kobach hasn't found massive fraud in Kansas, so he's broadening the search.
Critics of the commission believe that its findings, no matter what they are, will be used to justify efforts to make it harder to register to vote and to cast a ballot — restrictions that tend to suppress participation by low-income and minority voters who are likely to be Democrats. But Trump is more than a garden-variety seeker of partisan advantage. He believes there can be no explanation other than fraud for his defeat in the popular vote. The rhinoceroses, he is convinced, must be kept at bay.