Initial thoughts on the “Pence Commission”

President Trump has just issued the executive order announcing the creation of his “voting fraud” commission to be chaired by Vice President Pence.  Here are my own initial thoughts.

1. Title.  This will be the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.  Election integrity is the principal dimension over which Democrats and Republicans differ when they think about the main problems of election policy, both at the mass and elite levels.  For instance, in my own module of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, I asked respondents to place themselves on a five-point continuum, based on which of the following statements was closest to their own opinion:  (1) It is important to make voting as easy as possible, even if there are some security risks, vs. (2) It is important to make voting as secure as possible, even if voting is not easy.  Here is how partisans distributed themselves among these answers:

This pattern recurs on virtually all questions on this survey — and others like it — that touch on security vs. access.  Bottom line:  This is a commission focused on problems that Republicans will resonate with and Democrats won’t.  Unlike the last presidential commission on election issues, the Bauer-Ginsberg PCEA, the Pence Commission seems like a body that will primarily reinforce partisan lines and gridlock on hot-button election issues.

2. Voter confidence. The executive order starts by charging the commission with identifying “those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting process used in Federal elections.”  If the commission focuses on the scholarly research on this item, it will discover two overwhelming findings:  (1) voter confidence is driven most powerfully by who wins and loses and (2) election laws such as voter identification don’t affect the confidence that the mass public has in the electoral process.  In other words, when your party’s candidate wins the election, you become more confident of the process than when your party’s candidate loses.  In 2012, for instance, 52% of Republicans were very confident their votes were counted as cast, according to responses to the Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE).  In 2016, that percentage rose to 71%.  On the flip side, the percentage of Democrats who were very confident fell from 76% to 72%.  There is no election reform that has been shown to produce such swings in voter confidence as this.

3.  Focusing on rare problems vs. common problems.  One of the greatest barriers to advancing the cause of evidence-based election reform is how the field regularly gets side-tracked by issues that are serious on their face, but for which there is little-to-no evidence that they are encountered by millions of voters.  I’m thinking here about the belief that George W. Bush won in 2004 only because thousands of votes were stolen for him by electronic machines in Ohio, or that Donald Trump would have won the popular vote in 2016 if only millions of fraudulent votes hadn’t been cast.  At the same time, state and local election officials struggle to get state legislatures and county commissioners to focus their attention on keeping voting machines up-to-date or modernizing voter registration systems.  These latter problems have had demonstrable effects in the past, and election administration continues to struggle with them today.

4. The lost opportunity.  Most people who work in the field of election administration, academics and practitioners, know that the voter registration system is less than perfect and needs help.  Democrats and Republicans alike have worked in recent years to address the vulnerabilities in this system.  In some cases, they have come together to embrace programs like ERIC (the Electronic Registration Information Center) , in order to improve list maintenance.  In other cases, they have supported online voter registration, which holds the promise of improving the accuracy of voter lists.  The existence of a commission with a partisan framing will create barriers for non-partisan and dispassionate work in this area to proceed — not because it will necessarily politicize those already doing the hard, tedious work in this area, but because they (we) will yet again have to swat back unfounded rumors, leaving less time for the work that actually needs to get done.