Friday, 12 May 2017

Trump throws out some red meat to his base

While everyone is (rightly) obsessed with the Comey firing... Trump appoints another white nationalist ideologue to lead his dangerous “election commission”.

Yesterday (May 10), just before basically conceding the White House lines on the Comey firing over the past 48 hours were fabrications, Trump launched a long-promised commission on “election integrity,” rekindling a controversy over the prevalence of voter fraud at US polls.  The commission, established by executive order, is the upshot of Trump’s unsubstantiated claim shortly after taking office that more than 3 million undocumented immigrants illegally voted in November’s election.  The new commission includes Republicans Connie Lawson, the secretary of state of Indiana, and Kenneth Blackwell, who formerly held that post in Ohio; Democratic election officials William M. Gardner of New Hampshire and Matthew Dunlap of Maine.  Christy McCormick, a Republican member of the nonpartisan US Election Assistance Commission appointed by President Barack Obama, has also been selected to serve on the panel.  All these officials seem entirely reasonable choices, but he has appointed Kris Kobach to co-lead (along with Vice President Mike Pence) this commission and its investigation.  Kobach is a white nationalist, anti-immigrant ideologue with a long and notorious career of voter suppression efforts.  The new commission is unlikely to find much evidence of real voter fraud, but with Kobach’s guidance, it could entrench voter suppression measures nonetheless.
Before explaining who Kobach is, and why his presence is so troubling, first its important to note how entirely pointless it is to have this commission in the first place.  The simple fact is that there is no reason for it to exist.  Numerous studies have shown that instances of in-person voter fraud are rare, and the National Association of Secretaries of State, which represents many US state elections officials, said in January that it is “not aware of any evidence that supports the voter fraud claims made by President Trump.”  Trump’s own lawyers concluded as much about the 2016 contest, asserting in legal filings that voting was “not tainted” as they sought to block recounts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The timing of this Executive Order is also dubious. 
Numerous voting rights advocates were today sceptical about the motives of the proposed commission, as The Washington Post reported:

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, called the commission “a sham and distraction,” alleging that Trump was trying “to pivot” from the firestorm that followed his firing of Comey while the FBI chief was leading an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“He fired the person investigating a real threat to election integrity and set up a probe of an imaginary threat,” Waldman said.

League of Women Voters President Chris Carson said, “The real purpose of this effort is to justify President Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 elections.” She said the commission was being filled with “political ideologues with dangerous agendas.”

While distraction from the Comey affair has not materialized – largely because Trump himself has added fuel to that fire Carson’s reference to dangerous agendas and political ideologues is a direct reference to damage Kobach might do to the elections process.  Other US representatives expressed similar fears and suggested ulterior motives after hearing Kobach had been appointed co-chair of the commission.  “Selecting Kris Kobach as vice chair reveals exactly the kind of discriminatory witch hunt the American people can expect from this commission,” said Representative and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. “The president’s ‘election integrity’ commission is clearly intended to accelerate the vile voter suppression efforts in states across the nation.”

Who is Kris Kobach?

A Yale-trained lawyer, Kobach is the current Kansas Secretary of State.  He has served as counsel to the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) since 2004. IRLI is the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group whose leaders have historical ties to white supremacists and eugenicists. The Southern Poverty Law Center – from which most of this profile was gathered – has listed FAIR as a hate group since 2007.  It was founded by Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton, the founder and principal ideologue of the modern anti-immigrant movement in the United States.  Tanton spent decades at the heart of the white nationalist movement and corresponded with former Klan lawyers, Holocaust deniers and leading white nationalist intellectuals.  Tanton also founded and operated The Social Contract Press, a racist publishing company. FAIR’s current president, Dan Stein, said in 1994 that immigration reform in the 1960s was “revengism” against whites and that its supporters wanted to “retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance.” He has claimed immigrants are “getting into competitive breeding.”

In October 2015, Kobach was a featured speaker at a “writers’ workshop” put on by The Social Contract Press.  Back in 2012, Kobach had claimed he had not done any legal work for any organization that “expresses or supports racial discrimination.”  However, FAIR has received $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund, an organization founded in 1937 by Nazi sympathizers.  

Kobach joined IRLI after a two-year stint as a White House fellow working in the U.S. Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft during the Bush administration.  After 9/11, US Attorney General John Ashcroft tasked Kobach with shepherded a program to track foreign travelers. (It was later shut down over concerns about racial profiling.)  

The Justice Department in 2002 reduced the number of Board of Immigration Appeals judges from 19 to 11, creating a backlog of cases that had disastrous consequences for immigrants. Kobach took credit.  Kobach ran for Congress in Kansas in 2004, receiving $10,000 in campaign contributions from US Immigration PAC, which was operated by FAIR founder John Tanton’s wife.  Kobach had joined IRLI, that year.  Kobach lost the election in part because his opponent attacked him for his ties to FAIR, calling him a racist.  As senior counsel to the IRLI, Kobach sued the state of Kansas in 2004 over a law passed that year granting in-state tuition to high school graduates born to undocumented immigrant parents. The court rejected Kobach’s claims in 2006.  Kobach embraced birtherism in 2010 while campaigning for secretary of state in Kansas.  He co-wrote the ultraconservative 2016 RNC party platform, and he's also the Trump adviser who came up with a proposal to force Mexico into paying for Trump’s wall.

Kobach is best known as the author of Arizona's infamous SB 1070, colloquially known as the “Driving While Brown Law,” which allowed cops to pull over drivers and ask for proof of their legal status – which the Supreme Court found largely unconstitutional in 2012He was also instrumental in the passage of similar laws in other towns and states, including Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.  The laws varied in scope but generally encouraged racial profiling of Latinos by local and state law enforcement and criminalized many aspects of undocumented immigrants’ lives.  Most provisions of those laws have been overturned by federal courts or gutted by settlements in lawsuits filed by civil rights groups. These laws thus cost those states and cities millions in taxpayer funds and lost revenue.  

As Kansas Secretary of State, Kobach introduced the Kansas Secure and Fair Elections (SAFE) Act, which required newly-registered Kansas voters to provide proof of US citizenship when registering. In addition, voters must show photo ID when casting their vote in person, and when voting by mail, they must verify their signature and provide a driver’s license or non-driver ID number.  He has advocated the proof-of-citizenship requirement at the federal level as well, alleging rampant voter fraud without producing proof of a widespread problem.  But using such tactics, Kobach has suspended or canceled more than 30,000 voter registrations because the individuals were not able to prove their citizenship when registering, according to MSNBC.  “Every time an alien votes, it cancels out the vote of a United States citizen,” he told Breitbart. “This is a nationwide problem. Every state needs to address it and take steps to secure the most fundamental privilege of citizenship—the vote.”

In 2013 and 2014, Kobach spearheaded a program to purge voter rolls. The program, called Interstate Crosscheck, compiled a master list that included the names of one-seventh of all African-American voters in 27 states, whom officials alleged were under suspicion for voting twice in the same election. Millions of the names were mismatched and the program ignored discrepancies.  In January 2013, Kobach addressed a gathering of the National Association of State Election Directors about combating an epidemic of ballot-stuffing across the country.  He announced that Crosscheck had already uncovered 697,537 “potential duplicate voters” in 15 states, and that the state of Kansas was prepared to cover the cost of compiling a nationwide list. That was enough to persuade 13 more states to hand over their voter files to Kobach's office.

But according to an in-depth investigation of the Crosscheck program published in Rolling Stone before the 2016 election:  “So far, Crosscheck has tagged an astonishing 7.2 million suspects, yet we found no more than four perpetrators who have been charged with double voting or deliberate double registration.”  As the article reported, investigators found the Crosscheck database was ludicrously (and maliciously) defective:

On its surface, Crosscheck seems quite reasonable. Twenty-eight participating states share their voter lists and, in the name of dispassionate, race-blind Big Data, seek to ensure the rolls are up to date. To make sure the system finds suspect voters, Crosscheck supposedly matches first, middle and last name, plus birth date, and provides the last four digits of a Social Security number for additional verification….

Crosscheck's results seemed at best deeply flawed.  We found that one-fourth of the names on the list actually lacked a middle-name match. The system can also mistakenly identify fathers and sons as the same voter, ignoring designations of Jr. and Sr. A whole lot of people named “James Brown” are suspected of voting or registering twice, 357 of them in Georgia alone.  But according to Crosscheck, James Willie Brown is supposed to be the same voter as James Arthur Brown. James Clifford Brown is allegedly the same voter as James Lynn Brown.

And those promised birth dates and Social Security numbers? The Crosscheck instruction manual says that “Social Security numbers are included for verification; the numbers might or might not match” – which leaves a crucial step in the identification process up to the states.  Social Security numbers weren't even included in the state lists we obtained. 

We had Mark Swedlund, a database expert whose clients include eBay and American Express, look at the data from Georgia and Virginia, and he was shocked by Crosscheck's “childish methodology.” He added, “God forbid your name is Garcia, of which there are 858,000 in the U.S., and your first name is Joseph or Jose. You're probably suspected of voting in 27 states.”

Swedlund's statistical analysis found that African-American, Latino and Asian names predominate, a simple result of the Crosscheck matching process, which spews out little more than a bunch of common names.  No surprise: The U.S. Census data shows that minorities are overrepresented in 85 of 100 of the most common last names. If your name is Washington, there's an 89 percent chance you're African-American. If your last name is Hernandez, there's a 94 percent chance you're Hispanic. If your name is Kim, there's a 95 percent chance you're Asian.

This inherent bias results in an astonishing one in six Hispanics, one in seven Asian-Americans and one in nine African-Americans in Crosscheck states landing on the list.  Was the program designed to target voters of color?  Every voter that the state marks as a legitimate match receives a postcard that is colorless and covered with minuscule text. The voter must verify his or her address and mail it back to their secretary of state.  Fail to return the postcard and the process of taking your name off the voter rolls begins.

This postcard game amplifies Crosscheck's built-in racial bias.  According to the Census Bureau, white voters are 21 percent more likely than blacks or Hispanics to respond to their official requests; homeowners are 32 percent more likely to respond than renters; and the young are 74 percent less likely than the old to respond.  Those on the move – students and the poor, who often shift apartments while hunting for work – will likely not get the mail in the first place.

At this point, there's no way to know how each state plans to move forward.  If Virginia's 13 percent is any indication, almost 1 million Americans will have their right to vote challenged.  Our analysis suggests that winding up on the Crosscheck list is hardly proof that an individual is registered in more than one state….And not surprisingly, almost all Crosscheck states are Republican-controlled.

Not only has Kobach tried to use Crosscheck a tool for effective voter suppression, he lobbied the Kansas Legislature in 2015 to give his office the power to prosecute voter fraud, making Kansas the only state in the US to grant its secretary of state such powers.  Kobach promised to stop “illegal” voters; after originally claiming he knew of 100 cases of double voting, he had filed only six cases as of May 2016.  Regardless, he told the Washington Post: “The reason we have to do this is a significant problem in Kansas and in the rest of the country of aliens getting on our voting rolls.”  

In February 2017, Kobach was a guest on CNN and was asked for proof of widespread voter fraud.  He couldn’t provide any, but simply pointed to examples of people being registered in more than one state (as many of Trump’s cabinet actually were) or individual instances of voter fraud but not any evidence of it happening on a massive scale as Trump has suggested.

I don’t have data on how many cases of voter fraud he found in the November 2016 election, but I suspect the fact that we haven’t heard about masses of prosecutions in Kansas is because there aren’t any.  Trump would have most certainly talked about them if there had been.

So this is the man, and the agenda, leading the “election integrity” commission.  Its true that VP Pence is co-chair, but he’s proved to be no more than spineless dupe of Trump so far.  That there are democrats on the commission gives some hope that at least there is a chance of a minority report or resignations if the worst instincts of Kobach find their way into the formal report.

More hope is evident in the pushback already evident against Trump’s Executive Order establishing this commission. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a legal request to the White House for records showing “concrete evidence” of fraudulent voting that would warrant the creation of such a commission.  “President Trump is attempting to spread his own fake news about election integrity,” said Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “If the Trump administration really cares about election integrity, it will divulge its supposed evidence before embarking on this commission boondoggle.”

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