Kobach voting commission in turmoil, but it’s still a threat

By some accounts, the wheels are coming off the White House’s controversial voting commission.

NPR reported this week that the commission “limps along,” and that its work “appears stalled amid internal divisions and outside legal challenges.” The Washington Post sees “questions about the future” of the panel.

There’s no denying that things haven’t been going smoothly. One commissioner said Wednesday that the panel’s work is temporarily on hold as it deals with an array of lawsuits charging it with violating transparency and privacy laws, among other claims. The commission’s Democrats say Kris Kobach, the vice chair and de facto leader, isn’t keeping them in the loop on key decisions. Many states have refused to hand over voter roll information as requested. One of the commission’s few staffers was recently arrested on child pornography charges, while there’s so far been no word about whether a Democratic commissioner who died over a week ago will be replaced. The commission’s executive director suggested Monday that a meeting last month, the panel’s second, might have been its last, though Kobach said Wednesday a third is being planned. And now the Government Accountability Office, which oversees the government’s use of taxpayer dollars, has said it plans to probe the commission.

It may be satisfying for opponents of the commission to read the reports of turmoil. But here’s the thing: The panel’s PR and legal headaches likely won’t stop it from accomplishing its apparent goal from the start — encouraging states, and even Congress, to impose further restrictions on voting, primarily by making it harder to get, or stay, on the voting rolls.

The commission’s report, to be released next year, is likely to urge states to more aggressively pare their voter rolls, citing roll maintenance requirements in federal voting law. It’s also likely to recommend that states do so by using additional data sources — a federal database of non-citizens; lists of felons maintained by law enforcement; the Crosscheck program, run by Kobach himself, for finding voters registered in multiple states. The commission may even urge Congress to weaken federal voting law by allowing states to require that voter registrants show documentary proof of citizenship. All of these steps, of course, threaten to raise unnecessary barriers to voting, hitting marginalized voters the hardest.

None of the commission’s well-chronicled problems are likely to prevent it from issuing a report along these lines.

First, on the issue of meetings: News reports framed the possibility that there won’t be any more meetings as more evidence of the commission’s struggles to find consensus. That’s narrowly accurate. But Kobach and his allies don’t need consensus. Not holding any more meetings would do nothing to stop the commission’s leaders from carrying out their work behind the scenes — which is where much of it appears already to have taken place.

Then there’s the controversy over the commission’s request for voter data from all 50 states. Sure, plenty of states, including red ones, rejected the ask, citing privacy and security concerns. That may have been embarrassing for the commission’s leaders. But most of the data is publicly available, and they wound up with plenty of it.  And, as we’ve explained, Kobach and co. may be able to do even more damage with a partial data set than with a complete one.

As for the myriad lawsuits, they appear to have been a nuisance that has slowed, sand even temporarily halted, the commission’s work. But in a sense, they’re a sideshow: None ultimately seek to bar the panel from carrying out its core function of making whatever recommendations it sees fit to prevent illegal voting, and no one has seriously argued that the panel lacks the authority to do so.

Then there’s the players involved. Kobach’s hard-charging political style offers little evidence to think he’ll bow to public opinion by significantly modifying the panel’s conclusions. He’s simply not the type to trim his sales in response to a bit of scolding from the mainstream media, attacks from voting rights advocates, or, in some cases, even court orders. And now he’s in a competitive Republican primary in the Kansas governor race, giving him even less incentive to compromise.

The panel’s two other most influential figures, Hans von Spakovsky and Christian Adams, are likely to take the same approach. Von Spakovsky tried at the outset to ensure that the commission contained no Democrats at all, emails released in a court case show. And Adams’s conservative legal organization has led the way in bringing lawsuits aimed at forcing states to urge their rolls more aggressively.

Ultimately, it comes down to numbers. Democrats simply don’t have the votes to stop Kobach and his allies on matters of real importance. Only four Dems — one of whom has largely sided with the panel’s GOP leaders — now sit on the ten-person commission.

None of this is to argue that the range of efforts by Democrats and voting advocates to make life harder for the commission have been in vain. They’ve succeeded in tarnishing the legitimacy of the panel in the eyes of much of the public — and that could even end up making some states more wary of adopting its recommendations.

But the panel is still going to fulfill its mission by releasing a set of recommendations. And those recommendations, if implemented, are very likely to make voting significantly harder, especially for marginalized groups.

That’s a reality that should be confronted, not obscured.

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