NEW YORK — Sometimes she’d only register five or six people to vote; never more than a handful. But even so it was another five or six people who would get to the ballot box on election day. And that was a good thing, said Rabbi Lucy Dinner of Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina.
For Dinner, voting is a fundamental American right. That’s why she spent all last summer canvassing her corner of the Tar Heel state.
“I fail to understand how voting rights are a liberal or conservative issue. The right to vote is essential to a democracy and if you aren’t for the right to vote then you are against democracy,” she said.
So when President Donald Trump signed a May 11 executive order to “enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes” a few weeks ago, Dinner was angry. Having been involved in voting rights for decades, she saw the order to create a commission to examine voter fraud and suppression as disingenuous.
Dinner is not alone. From rabbis to lawyers, these men and women see the commission as a ploy designed to justify limits on the right to vote for minorities, low-income people, young people and the elderly.
“In this particular political climate where there is a lot of gas lighting going on, this executive order could be easily overlooked. We have to keep presenting the facts, and make them [officials who claim widespread voter fraud] account for their statements. In the end I believe the facts will rise,” Dinner said.
Although Trump-Russia-Comey-Flynn-Kushner scandals virtually buried news of the order’s signing, those fighting for voter rights are alarmed.
“It’s a sham commission with a preordained conclusion that it’s trying to prove. It’s not bi-partisan and it doesn’t have any experts on it. Instead it has people on it that have a history of promoting a false narrative of voter fraud,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.
Upon signing the order, Trump also announced he was appointing Kris Kobach as vice chairman of the new Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. While Vice President Mike Pence was named chair, Kobach will likely be the commission’s driving force, Weiser said.
As Kansas’s Secretary of State, Kobach pushed the Kansas Legislature to pass some of the most stringent voting restrictions in the nation, as well as empower him with special authority to enforce them.
Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio Secretary of State, also sits on the commission. His appointment “unnerved” Rabbi Joshua Caruso of the Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Cleveland.
Blackwell, said Caruso, once tried to reject voter registration forms because they were on the wrong weight of paper and he also stopped people who had requested an absentee ballot from voting provisionally if they didn’t receive their absentee ballot in the mail.
“People have to realize voting has been under threat since [the 2013 Supreme Court case on the Voting Rights Act] Shelby v. Holder. This order, and this commission, strikes me as another form of racism because these kinds of restrictions place undue hardships on minorities,” Caruso said.
Additionally, whether those on the commission truly believe voter fraud exists is almost beside the point, Weiser said.
“After all, it’s hard for a reasonable person to look at the data and see a reasonable risk of voter fraud. But many people have found it convenient to use the specter of voter fraud to cut back on voting rights,” she said.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the voting system. Aside from alleged foreign interference, voting machines are aging out, and voter registration guidelines need to be modernized, Weiser said.
‘It’s hard for a reasonable person to look at the data and see a reasonable risk of voter fraud’
“If Trump is so concerned about voting then the sensible thing is to direct Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act. It’s Orwellian to make these false claims about voter fraud,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.
Pesner was referring to Trump’s oft repeated, but unsubstantiated, claim that millions of non-citizens voted illegally in the 2016 election.
It’s an assertion that is both patently false and deeply offensive, Pesner said. After all, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was drafted in part at the RAC DuPont Circle offices.
State elected officials and national experts alike, including the National Association of Secretaries of State, have stated unequivocally there is no evidence to support Trump’s claim of rampant voter fraud.
“We are not aware of any evidence that supports the voter fraud claims made by President Trump, but we are open to learning more about the Administration’s concerns. In the lead up to the November 2016 election, secretaries of state expressed their confidence in the systemic integrity of our election process as a bipartisan group, and they stand behind that statement today,” according to the January 2017 statement.
For Ari Berman, who writes for The Nation and is the author of the 2015 book, “Give Us The Ballot,” the issue of voter suppression was the “biggest under-covered scandal of the 2016 campaign.”
Since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby v. Holder, states are systematically restricting access to the polls via voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting.
This was the first presidential election since 1967 held without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, Berman wrote. Additionally, 14 states had enacted new voting restrictions, including the swing states of Wisconsin and Virginia.
During a recent interview on Fresh Air, Berman said the commission was a way for Trump to distract people from the firing of former FBI director Jim Comey. He also said the commission will allow the GOP to further cement policies designed to make it more difficult for people to vote.
Those laws include proof of citizenship to register to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice about seven percent of Americans can’t access those documents and even more don’t walk around with birth certificates or naturalization papers in hand.
Recently the State Board of Elections in North Carolina concluded an investigation into voter fraud. The report found one single credible case of in-person voter fraud out of nearly 4.8 million total votes cast in 2016. While the report found there were more than 500 ineligible votes, the State Board of Election concluded these came from people who sincerely believed they were allowed to vote when legally they weren’t.
Indeed, voting fraud is extremely rare, and in-person fraud — the only kind that voter ID laws could catch — is virtually nonexistent, Weiser said.
Moreover, said Weiser, a recent Brennan Center survey of local election officials in 42 jurisdictions reported that there were 30 cases of suspected undocumented immigrant voting during the 2016 election — out of more than 23 million votes cast.
Last week the US Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to a decision of a federal appeals court that struck down as unconstitutional North Carolina’s anti-voter law which required photo identification at the polls, reduced early voting and eliminated same-day registration. In their verdict the appeals court said Republican state legislators targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Trump is hard pressed to find support even among Republican leaders for his executive order. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said no federal dollars should be spent on investigating voter fraud. House Majority Leader Paul Ryan has been on the record as saying there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
“The arc of this country bends toward justice. If people really think voter fraud is a big problem, then so be it. I will not impugn their beliefs. But we will show that however well-intentioned their laws are, the outcome is voter suppression and that comes dangerously close to racism,” Pesner said.