If you want to understand President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission, it helps to study what happened in Kansas.
Six years before Trump was tweeting about stolen elections and unsubstantiated claims of millions of fraudulent votes, Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, was promoting the idea that widespread voter fraud threatens the integrity of our electoral system.
It should come as no surprise that Trump chose Kobach to be the vice chairman of Vice President Mike Pence’s new Commission on Election Integrity. This appointment gives Kobach a national platform by which to pursue his agenda.
Kansas’ voter ID law went into effect when I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas. The pervasive campaign promoting the new law piqued my interest. My co-author and I set out to assess the impact advertisements — specifically, the “Got ID?” campaign — had on voter turnout during the 2012 election.
A chilling effect
Although voter ID laws are nothing new, Kobach has succeeded in making them more popular.
Kobach personally drafted the Kansas Secure and Fair Elections Act (SAFE Act), which was signed into law in 2011. He also played an integral role in the proliferation of derivative voter ID laws, advocating for them at national conferences and on his radio show.
Republican Party leaders supported voter ID laws in their 2012 party platform, declaring “we applaud legislation to require photo identification for voting and to prevent election fraud … Voter fraud is political poison. It strikes at the heart of representative government.”
In 2016, the party expanded its support of voter ID laws to back legislation requiring proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. These efforts have spread; 34 states now require voters to show some form of identification prior to voting.
While Kansas was not the first state to pass a voter ID law – that was South Carolina in 1950 – it was and remains one of the most restrictive and comprehensive laws of its kind. The SAFE Act requires voters to 1) present photo IDs prior to casting a ballot, 2) present a full driver’s license number and have their signatures verified in order to absentee vote and 3) provide proof of citizenship to register to vote.
Although a few states had previously adopted one or two of these provisions, Kansas was the first to combine all three. In an interview, Kobach defended the law, stating, every “time an alien votes, it cancels out the vote of a United States citizen.”
Kobach even continued to enforce the proof of citizenship provision after it was struck down by court rulings.
So what was the effect of all Kobach’s efforts?
Our study suggested that, in 2012, the SAFE law and ads about it tended to decrease turnout. However, this effect was mitigated in precincts where local officials played an important role in educating voters about their rights – in stark contrast to Kobach’s statewide advertising. Turnout in these precincts was 2.3 percent higher than statistically identical precincts across the state that were only exposed to the “Got ID?” advertisements.
Not readily available
Arguably, the most restrictive provision of the Kansas SAFE Act is its requirement that people show a birth certificate, U.S. passport or other document showing citizenship before they can register to vote.
Other researchers have also found that proof of citizenship requirements make it more difficult for people to vote. Research has found that as many as 7 percent of Americans, mostly minorities, do not have these documents readily available. Yet, it is unclear that proof of citizenship requirements actually add any real value to the integrity of the election process. Federal law already requires that individuals registering to vote affirm in writing that they are a U.S. citizen. Lying carries serious criminal penalties. Further, research consistently finds that voting by noncitizens is extremely rare.
Advocates of voter ID laws insist that requiring all voters to show a photo ID or proof of citizenship makes it more difficult for noncitizens, felons and individuals who have already voted to vote illegally.
Despite these claims, documented cases of noncitizens voting are extremely rare. A study of all 50 states between 2001 to 2012 found only 633 reported cases of voter fraud, and only 10 of those were from voter impersonation. Opponents of voter ID laws argue that any benefits gained by voter ID laws are not worth the risks of reduced voter turnout and disenfranchisement. Research shows that underrepresented populations, such as minorities and the poor, are less likely than whites to have photo IDs. It is also worth pointing out that restrictive voting laws have historically been used to prevent racial minorities and women from participating in the electoral process.
While Republican lawmakers ostensibly support voter ID laws on the grounds that they want to prevent voter fraud, the lack of evidence of such fraud makes this reasoning suspect. In contrast, research shows that these laws are electorally advantageous for the Republican Party. It hardly seems a coincidence that the individuals most likely to be impacted by ID laws are more likely to support Democrats. Historically, Democrats support policies that encourage turnout, while Republicans support more restrictive voting laws. Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, famously said “I don’t want everybody to vote … our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
More recently, North Carolina GOP county precinct chair Don Yelton told “The Daily Show” that state’s new photo ID law “is going to kick the Democrats in the butt,” adding that “if it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.”
Given his relentless pursuit of voter fraud and tenacious support for ID laws, it seems likely that Kobach will use his new national influence to push for voting laws that disproportionately impact minorities, low-income people and the elderly. While these laws might help to insure “safe” election margins for Republican candidates, they do not safeguard the rights of all Americans to participate in the democratic process.
Chelsie Bright is an assistant adjunct professor at Mills College