Bush-Era Justice Department Scandal Shows Risk of Politicization
New York, NY – President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order opening a wide-reaching investigation into voter fraud in American elections. This follows Trump’s false claim that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election.
Reports indicate “the probe would likely be carried out through Trump’s Justice Department.” Typically, investigations of this kind would occur only if there is specific evidence of wrongdoing, but Trump has produced no evidence of fraud. Election officials, leaders of the president’s own party, and every academic and journalistic investigation confirm in-person fraud, and voting by non-citizens, is exceedingly rare.
Reports that the Justice Department will lead the investigation raise serious concerns. A decade ago, under the George W. Bush administration, the DOJ was upended by scandal when the agency pursued a partisan political agenda on voting rights. Several top officials were forced to resign.
A recent Brennan Center report, The Justice Department’s Voter Fraud Scandal: Lessons, documents the key elements of the 2007 incident, including how:
- The Justice Department’s political leadership fired seven well-respected U.S. attorneys, dismissing some top Republican prosecutors because they had refused to prosecute nonexistent fraud.
- Senior officials hired career staff members using a political loyalty test, perverted the work of the nonpartisan Voting Section toward partisan ends, and exerted pressure on states and an independent agency to fall in line with an anti-voting rights agenda.
- The effort backfired badly, touching off a wave of investigations. The scandal forced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign and helped drive George W. Bush’s chief strategist Karl Rove from his job.
“An investigation led by the Justice Department would pose serious risks to basic foundations of our democracy. Last time a president pushed the Department to go on a voter fraud witch hunt, the agency’s integrity was shot and Americans’ voting rights suffered. And this could be even worse,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “The myth of voter fraud has been used for years to justify voter ID laws and other harsh tactics. I’m extremely concerned this is the opening salvo to another wide-ranging effort to restrict voting rights nationwide.”
Any investigation into our voting system should be strictly independent of the administration, bipartisan, and include respected independent scholars and election administrators.
The most recent example of an independent commission that studied voting was the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, created by President Barack Obama following long voting lines in the 2012 election.
The bipartisan group of election officials, voting specialists, and business leaders analyzed America’s outdated voting system and recommended several upgrades, including updating voting technology and modernizing voter registration. These changes, the Commission reported, would help boost accuracy, prevent fraud and abuse, reduce long lines, and save money.
“Upgrading our voter registration systems would get rid of duplicate registrations and dead people on the rolls, exactly the kind of problems President Trump is worried about. That is not voter fraud, but a sign our outdated processes need to be improved,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Center’s Democracy Program. “States across the country have been moving in this direction for years. Several have moved to automatic registration, which is the best way to ensure every eligible citizen gets on the rolls accurately and securely.”