The scary part of the still-developing “voter fraud” story isn’t that President Donald Trump evidently buys into a conspiracy theory that supports both his worldview and his ego. The scary part is that a majority of his fellow Republicans, and a significant number of Democrats, also evidently buy into the myth. Those peddling the fiction that 3–5 million people illegally voted in the 2016 election will use the charge to justify additional voter restriction efforts across the country in the coming years. And those who don’t buy into the myth will be faced with the practical dilemma of proving a negative without the sort of sweeping national investigation that would put the allegation to rest at last.
So long as the White House is peddling this nonsense, and so long as it can be used for partisan purposes, the story is here to stay, further poisoning what already is a poisoned political atmosphere. We need to know, before the next federal election in November 2018, whether and to what extent voter fraud occurred last November. We need to know, also, what effect voter suppression efforts had on turnout. We need, in other words, to have a common set of verifiable facts we can really on to animate the political debate about voting rights going forward to 2020.
To that end, if he’s really serious about learning more about the massive fraud he says occurred, President Trump should create a blue-ribbon presidential commission to study voting rights, voter suppression, and allegations of voter fraud in the 2016 election. The panel should be led by former Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens—all Republican appointees. The lead investigator of the Commission should be former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald—another Republican appointee. Congress should endorse the endeavor.
Fitzgerald, who earned a reputation as a dogged, independent prosecutor, should be given subpoena power. His investigators should talk on the record to purveyors of the voter fraud myth to identify and expose their theories. Local election officials also should be questioned about what they saw and didn’t see. There are law professors and other scholars (including those at the Brennan Center) who have devoted years of their lives researching the question of voter fraud and voter suppression. Their views, too, should be included in a final report that would be completed no later than May 1, 2018, six months before the mid-term election.
It’s a put-up or shut-up moment for the Trump administration and Congress. Either the president and federal lawmakers are serious about understanding what just happened in November or they are not. If they are this commission is a reasonable path forward. If they are not they should stop fomenting false narratives that further undermine the confidence we are supposed to have in our elections. On voting rights, of all our rights, we cannot continue to have facts, and “alternative facts,” and no agreement on which are which.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.