Last week, one of our nation’s best-known vote suppressors, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, said at the first meeting of what Donald Trump calls the voter fraud commission that we “may never know” who actually won the popular vote in the 2016 presidential race. That generated a few gasps and a rash of head shaking. After all, the official tally gave Hillary Clinton a 2.9 million-vote margin.
But Kobach’s remark as vice chairman of the commission—officially overseen by Vice President Mike Pence as chairman—was soon overwhelmed by objections to the commission’s demand that states turn over private, personal data about voters on their rolls. That demand has been flat-out rejected by 22 states, with 22 others agreeing to provide only limited information already available to anyone who walks in the door and asks for it.
Anyone familiar with Kobach’s efforts to keep people off the voter rolls and purge people already on them was not surprised by his remark. The man was specially picked to be the hands-on chief of the formally named Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity—not for any reputation he has for integrity but specifically because of his long-standing efforts to suppress votes, particularly the votes of Latinos and young people.
With his “may never know” comment and remarks like it, Kobach and others who spread this brazen lie give credence in many Americans’ view to the ridiculous Trump claim that 3 to 5 million people fraudulently voted in the 2016 election, keeping him from winning the popular vote. But the remark and its cousins could do something much worse: They could serve as the greatest vote suppressor since Jim Crow was tossed, half a century ago, by persuading many Americans to believe that they can’t trust election outcomes to reflect how legitimate voters actually cast their ballots. That is the perfect way to spur people to stay home on Election Day, something more than 100 million eligible Americans already do.
As Edward Burmila wrote at today’s Washington Post:
It is tempting, given Trump’s personality, to attribute his repeated claims of widespread voter fraud to the need of a fragile ego to explain away his 3 million vote shortfall in the popular vote, or to chalk it all up to a desire to curtail voting rights for populations who generally don’t vote Republican. But there are further and bigger reasons Trump might pursue the narrative that American voting is hopelessly broken. Trump’s insistence that American elections are beset by voter fraud also contributes to a larger effort to erode what little confidence remains among Americans in the institutions of government. When citizens have no confidence in the government, the party whose central ideological message is “government is bad” benefits.