President Donald Trump's obsession with proving he won the election has gone from the slightly ridiculous to the dangerous. Rankled that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, Trump decided that only massive voter fraud could explain why reliably liberal California would tally 3.4 million more Democratic than Republican votes -- and, he would assert on the basis of no evidence, many of those voters must have been immigrants here illegally. Now he has appointed a special commission to try to uncover the evidence to prove his paranoia. But in the process, he is asking states to turn over information on individual voters that could become an unprecedented trove of personal data subject to potential widespread abuse. Paradoxically, some of the same people who balk at the idea of a federal registry of gun owners have no problem with the federal government's compiling information on their voting habits.
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff warned this week in a column for The Washington Post that collecting names, birthdates, places of birth, addresses, party affiliation, voting history and the last four digits of voters' Social Security numbers in one location poses a national security risk. "We know that a database of personal information from all voting Americans would be attractive not only to adversaries seeking to affect voting but to criminals who could use the identifying information as a wedge into identity theft. We also know that foreign intelligence agencies seek large databases on Americans for intelligence and counterintelligence purposes," Chertoff wrote. While President Trump downplays Russia's meddling in the election, he can't deny that hackers intruded into voting systems in as many as 39 states. In large part because our system is so diffuse, hackers most likely were unable to do harm in the actual vote tally -- but imagine what havoc they could wreak with all the data in one place.
Many states, including those that voted for Trump, are refusing or limiting the information they give to the new commission. Ironically, the commission's vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, cannot by state law provide all the information he is seeking from other states. But the real issue is, what is the point of this exercise?
I have long supported state laws that require voters to show identification before voting and have never been enthusiastic about some voting "reforms" -- such as so-called motor voter laws, which allow people to register when they obtain a driver's license, and the now ubiquitous practice of early voting. These practices devalue the sacred responsibility of voting, emphasizing convenience instead of civic responsibility.
Maintaining the integrity of our electoral system is paramount, but the Trump commission's data grab isn't the way to go about it. Kobach's fixation with illegal immigration, something the president shares, seems to be driving this commission. Kobach wrote the Arizona bill to prohibit public benefits to immigrants here illegally and to require police to check the legal status of anyone stopped by law enforcement. Kobach is a stalwart of anti-immigrant groups and has made a career promoting immigration restriction; it's no accident that he was appointed vice chair of the president's commission.
In the president's delusion, some 3 million to 5 million immigrants who are here illegally voted in 2016, which would have been some feat. At its high range, the president's estimate would mean that undocumented immigrants were about as likely to vote as Hispanic U.S. citizens. There are about 10 million undocumented immigrants who are 18 or older in the United States, so if roughly 5 million voted, it would mean that 1 in 2 undocumented immigrants cast a vote, a bit higher than the 47.6 percent of eligible Hispanic citizens who voted in 2016, according to Census Bureau data. On its face, the allegation is ludicrous.
If the president's commission wants to do something useful, it might gather comprehensive information on what voter data states collect, how states handle and store the data, whether they purge voter rolls of outdated information or cross-tabulate with death records, whether states aggressively pursue allegations of voter fraud, and what the outcomes of prosecutions are. Instead, the president has strayed off base. Speaking on MSNBC this week, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Republican, summed it up best: "As my grandmother used to say, 'it's about as welcoming as a breeze off an outhouse.'" Not to mention a waste of money, time and effort.