Voting is among the most important of American freedoms.
Yet the Trump administration and the conservatives who support it rally around a false need for voter purges to eliminate mythical mass voter fraud while turning a completely blind eye to the clear and demonstrated threats of Russian hacking and manipulation in our 2016 elections.
In September, a conservative advocacy group known as the Public Interest Legal Foundation sent a notice to 248 county election officials in 24 states (including Georgia and Alabama) threatening them with a lawsuit if they don't prune their rolls of voters who have died, moved or lost their eligibility to vote.
The request may sound reasonable enough, but it's aimed at gaming the rules of elections, and one of group's commissioners is now on Trump's Election Integrity Commission.
The group's threat to counties makes no mention of the Department of Homeland Security alarm sounded to Congress in June that Russian hackers targeted voter registration systems in 21 states ahead of last year's presidential election. In one case, investigators found there had been a manipulation of voter data in a county database. (The alterations were discovered and rectified.) In Illinois, more than 90 percent of the nearly 90,000 records stolen by Russian state actors contained driver's license numbers, and a quarter contained the last four digits of voters' Social Security numbers.
Bloomberg later published a story that the Russian intrusion was actually more widespread than the Department of Homeland Security let on: In all, the Russian hackers hit systems in 39 states.
But the Trump administration isn't interested in that problem — after all, it might indicate he's not really an American-elected president. But that's a debate for another day.
Come January, the purge-or-be-sued notice will be at the heart of what The New York Times last week called "a marquee argument" before the Supreme Court. And the high-stakes question will be this: Is scrubbing ineligible voters from the rolls worth the effort if it means mistakenly bumping legitimate voters as well?
The political ramifications were made clear as recently as the 2000 presidential election: Florida's Legislature had ordered the voter rolls scrubbed of dead registrants and ineligible felons shortly before the election, and the resulting purge, based on a broad name-matching exercise, misidentified thousands of legitimate voters as criminals, and prevented at least 1,100 of them — some say thousands more — from casting ballots. Still, George W. Bush's 537-vote margin in Florida put him in the White House instead of Al Gore.
From that day forward, controlling the rules of elections — including who is on or off the rolls — became a crucial political strategy and legal battleground.
Conservative groups and Republican election officials in some states — including Tennessee — say that poorly maintained rolls invite fraud. Voting rights advocates and most Democratic election officials call the benefits imaginary and say the purges are intended to reduce the number of minority, poor and young voters, who are disproportionately Democrats.
In Tennessee, for instance, if a voter fails to participate over the course of two November election cycles, he or she is placed on a list of inactive voters not included in the commission's tally of eligible voters. After two more November cycles of non-participation, the voter is "purged," and must re-register. Add this to Tennessee's tough voter ID law that requires a photograph, perfectly matched names or addresses, and you've created plenty of potential roadblocks for young and mobile voters or elderly people — especially those of color.
Here, if you are turned away because your driver's license name or address don't match voting records or you've been purged, poll workers can give you a "provisional" ballot. But for your provisional ballot to be counted, you'll have to show up at the Election Commission office within two days to prove yourself. In Tennessee's November 2012 elections, only 1,623 of the 7,097 paper provisional ballots cast were counted in the end, according to state election officials. That means about four out of five were tossed out.
"The goal here is not election integrity," Stuart Naifeh, the senior counsel at the voting rights group Demos, told The New York Times. "It's intimidation and suppression of voters."
Demos has teamed up with two other civil rights organizations — the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program — to offer resistance advice and assistance to the 248 counties threatened by the conservative group.
Meanwhile, Russia's threat continues.
Last July, at the Las Vegas DEF CON 25 hacking conference, hackers — in the name of public safety — "were granted unrestricted access to explore and share any discovered vulnerabilities" in a variety of voting machines and electronic poll books, most of which are still in use in elections today.
We could term the result as "a piece of cake."
A subsequent report noted that the first machine "was hacked and taken control of remotely in a matter of minutes." In another case, sensitive voter data that should have been wiped from a device remained accessible.
Here's the heart stopper: Hackers were able to pull up personal information from 2008 on more than 654,000 Tennessee voters. Home addresses extracted from the files included the residences of "judges, law enforcement officers, and domestic violence victims."
Clearly our nation's voting machines could be manipulated by U.S. enemies long before they even reach polling sites — even remotely.
But conservatives are only worried about dead people voting.