The White House voter fraud commission will likely aim to ferret out ineligible voters on the rolls by checking a federal database of non-citizens, a new report suggests. But past efforts to use the database, which the government warns wasn’t designed for the purpose, have been fraught with problems, sometimes wrongly identifying eligible voters.
Separately, the White House announced that the commission will hold its first in-person meeting July 19.
The report about the plan to use the federal database comes days after news of an apparent plan by Kris Kobach, the commission’s vice chair and driving force, to recommend weakening federal safeguards that protect voters’ right to register in the first place. Together, the twin tactics paint a picture of an emerging strategy to make it much easier for states to deny access to the rolls, especially for racial minorities.
On Wednesday, at the end of an interview with Kobach, The Washington Times reported:
One part of the commission’s work will be to compare the federal government’s database of noncitizens — green card holders, temporary visa holders and illegal immigrants who’ve been arrested, for example — and check them against state voter registration rolls.
The Times appears to be referring to a federal database maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, which Kobach has for years been seeking access to, in order to use it to pare voter rolls. Last month, Kobach told Fox News: “The Department of Homeland Security knows of the millions of aliens who are in the United States legally and that’s data that’s never been bounced against the state’s voter rolls to see whether these people are registered.”
The commission already has asked states for their data. On Wednesday, it sent a letter to all 50 states requesting “publicly available data from state voter rolls and feedback on how to improve election integrity,” according to a White House readout of the commission’s first meeting.
Politifact has reported that Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Colorado, and some Arizona counties have in the past tried to use the Homeland Security database—known as the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE)—to remove non-citizens from their voter rolls.
When Florida briefly used SAVE in 2012, it wrongly identified several eligible voters as non-citizens. That included Yeral Arroliga, a naturalized citizen who immigrated from Nicaragua in 1995 and had voted in Florida since 2007, and four Polk County residents who were born in Puerto Rico, and thus automatically U.S. citizens.
That purge was so disastrous that it led to a mea culpa from Secretary of State Ken Detzner (pictured). “I accept responsibility for the effort,” Detzner said in 2013. “It could have been better. It should have been better.”
The Florida purge didn’t rely solely on SAVE. It also use state driver’s license records — a method that proved equally or more problematic. Still, it was hardly a ringing affirmation of SAVE’s effectiveness to check voting eligibility.
“Is it foolproof?” Maria Matthews, Florida’s elections director, asked at the time, referring to SAVE. “No, obviously it’s not.”
Indeed, a Homeland Security Department factsheet offers a clear warning about the limits of the data:
Please note there are a number of reasons why the SAVE program may not be able to verify your citizenship, e.g., the SAVE program can only verify naturalized or derived citizens, to the extent that a derived citizen received an official determination on U.S. citizenship by USCIS. The inability of the SAVE program to verify your citizenship does not necessarily mean that you are not a citizen of the United States and are ineligible to vote.
A few states, like Colorado and North Carolina, appear to be continuing to use SAVE without major problems. But the federal government has made them agree to restrictions on how they use it, to make sure they’re not disenfranchising eligible voters. There’s no guarantee that Kobach will follow the same rules, or that the Trump administration will require states to do so going forward.
The news about the plan to use SAVE isn’t the only recent clue to emerge about the commission’s likely approach. On Friday, a federal judge revealed in a court order that Kobach also has drawn up documents that recommend weakening federal voting law to make it easier for states to require documentary proof of citizenship from people registering to vote. Courts have blocked significant parts of a Kansas proof of citizenship law championed by Kobach, who is Kansas’s Secretary of State.
In the interview with The Washington Times, Kobach also revealed that the commission is being staffed by existing White House staffers. By contrast, the bipartisan voting commission created by President Obama in 2013 was directed by Nathaniel Persily, a widely respected election law scholar at Stanford.
Kobach also said he wouldn’t be calling on Obama to testify, even on the topic of Russian hacking, which the White House has said will be a topic for the panel.
“I’m not sure that President Obama has any information or expertise on the issue of voter fraud,” Kobach said. “His comments in the past have suggested that he may not be aware of it.”