In a Voter Fraud Fog

Kris Kobach's obsession with voter fraud distracts from the real threats to our elections.

April 14, 2017

Cross-posted at U.S. News and World Report.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has been making the rounds on Fox News this week. After years of shouting about in-person voter fraud as an excuse to push for restrictive voting laws that could prevent hundreds of thousands eligible Americans from voting, he finally obtained his first conviction of someone who unlawfully voted while not a citizen.

Kobach's mini-media tour may bolster those who want to believe President Donald Trump's unfounded claims that "millions" voted illegally in 2016, but it obscures a much more important story: There is critical work to complete in the next decade to ensure we maintain the integrity in elections that Americans have come to expect.

This work has little to do with voter fraud, which virtually every election expert, Republican and Democrat alike, agrees is exceptionally rare. Instead it is a story about voting machines badly needing an upgrade in much of the country, foreign actors who last year attempted to hack voter registration databases and an increasing number of Americans who are losing faith in our democracy.

On the same day Kobach promoted his singular conviction, the Republican chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, or EAC, refuted claims of massive fraud. "It's not widespread. It's not an epidemic," Matthew Masterson told Time. "Voters should have confidence in the process, that it's accessible, that it's accurate, that it has integrity." He is one of many Republican officials who have repudiated these assertions.

Years of research reveal that voter fraud cases are exceedingly rare. A three-year Justice Department initiative, ending in 2005, resulted in only 14 convictions, reported Rutgers political scientist Lorraine C. Minnite. A Brennan Center study found that even if one accepts all of the allegations of noncitizen voting as true, those voters would have accounted for between .0002 percent and .017 percent of the votes in the relevant jurisdiction.

State investigations have produced similar results. A two-year Iowa investigation from 2012 to 2014 into potential noncitizen voters started with a pool of 3,000 registered voters who at some point identified as noncitizens, and led to charges against just 11 people who allegedly voted unlawfully. In recent reports, the Ohio secretary of state claimed that 44 noncitizens voted in at least one election dating back to 2000. By way of reference, 3.26 million ballots were cast in Ohio in 2015 alone. "None of these affected the outcome of an election," Secretary of State Jon Husted told The Columbus Dispatch.

Our elections are much more at risk from other threats. In 2016, 42 states used machines that were at least a decade old, perilously close to the end of their projected lifespans. Attempted hacks of voter registration databases, combined with fears of foreign interference, undermined the public's confidence in our elections.

Election professionals and places like the EAC work on the nuts and bolts of election administration. They're in prime positions to help solve these problems.

The EAC, created after the problems in the 2000 election, provides an independent service to improve the nation's voting systems and help states with other critical functions of election administration. Working across party lines to produce the most efficient and secure system possible, the agency has set standards for voting technology, improved accessibility at the polls and worked with state and local jurisdictions to provide best practices.

It is also the only federal agency that sets security standards for voting machines, which means with a full-powered EAC, the 2020 election should be harder to hack. That's important both in its own right and for boosting voters' faith that our system works.

Masterson recognizes the need for new technology to boost security and is making it a top priority. "Election officials across the country have aging equipment and are either looking to upgrade or switch out that equipment," the EAC chairman said. "We're providing a variety of resources to help them do that."

Election integrity is essential, and citizens should trust that their votes count. Of course, we should take steps to prevent even exceptionally rare fraud incidents. The Brennan Center has proposed several that would not prevent eligible citizens from voting.

But Kobach argues that his meager prosecutions and single conviction highlight the need for passing laws that could keep hundreds of thousands eligible citizens from voting. He's once again offering a solution in search of a problem. To secure our elections moving forward, we need an approach that focuses on the challenges we actually face, not the ones that generate headlines.