RIP, vote-fraud commission, we hardly knew ye

In any other news cycle, this Trump administration initiative’s failure would get maximum airplay. With Donald Trump firing rhetorical missiles at both Kim Jong-un and Steve Bannon over Michael Wolff’s demeaning look at the president and his first year, the Voter Fraud Commission’s decommissioning is almost an afterthought. That’s an unfortunately appropriate end to a panel which never really got started on its mandate:

President Trump on Wednesday announced that he is disbanding a controversial panel studying alleged voter fraud that became mired in multiple federal lawsuits and faced resistance from states that accused it of overreach.

The decision is a major setback for Trump, who created the commission last year in response to his claim, for which he provided no proof, that he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 because of millions of illegally cast ballots.

The commission met only twice amid the series of lawsuits seeking to curb its authority and claims by Democrats that it was stacked to recommend voting restrictions favorable to the president’s party.

The main problem with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (its official title) was the environment in which it was birthed. The country has dealt with a broad range of election integrity issues for decades, including access, voting systems, counting and challenge processes, as well as proper identification and securing of the franchise itself. At times, those issues have risen to national-crisis levels, such as the aftermath of the 2000 election in which a few hundred punch-card ballots in Florida managed to stall the certification of a presidential election for two months.

In the aftermath of that crisis, Congress attempted to delve into election-integrity issues but did more damage than good. That effort prompted a push for electronic balloting that turned out to be a bad mistake, so much so that Congress will now debate a bill that would outlaw electronic-only systems altogether:

A bipartisan group of six senators has introduced legislation that would take a huge step toward securing elections in the United States. Called the Secure Elections Act, the bill aims to eliminate insecure paperless voting machines from American elections while promoting routine audits that would dramatically reduce the danger of interference from foreign governments.

The legislation comes on the heels of the contentious 2016 election. Post-election investigation hasn’t turned up any evidence that foreign governments actually altered any votes. However, we do know that Russians were probing American voting systems ahead of the 2016 election, laying groundwork for what could have become a direct attack on American democracy. …

The first objective is to get rid of paperless electronic voting machines. Computer scientists have been warning for more than a decade that these machines are vulnerable to hacking and can’t be meaningfully audited. States have begun moving away from paperless systems, but budget constraints have forced some to continue relying on insecure paperless equipment. The Secure Elections Act would give states grants specifically earmarked for replacing these systems with more secure systems that use voter-verified paper ballots.

The legislation’s second big idea is to encourage states to perform routine post-election audits based on modern statistical techniques. Many states today only conduct recounts in the event of very close election outcomes. And these recounts involve counting a fixed percentage of ballots. That often leads to either counting way too many ballots (wasting taxpayer money) or too few (failing to fully verify the election outcome).

This is a long overdue step, although it would be better for states to have concluded on their own to get rid of electronic-only systems rather than have it become a federal mandate. More to the point, though, it shows that election integrity continues to be a worrisome issue for the nation. Had the PACEI been launched on that basis and contemplated a broad range of issues, it might have had more chance of survival, let alone success.

Unfortunately, it was widely perceived as an exercise in validating Donald Trump’s claims that Hillary Clinton got 3 million or more votes illegally and nothing more. That perception sprang from Trump’s own promotion of his panel, which continued after he shut it down:

That’s a loss for election integrity that might last longer than this presidency. It will be difficult after the failure of the PACEI for Republicans to raise the issue again without the connotations to irresponsible claims related to the popular-vote totals from the 2016 presidential election. A fair review would have shown that voter-ID laws do not hamper legitimate access to the ballot — as Alabama’s special election last month proved — and given a forum to address serious concerns about security and process issues that still exist in many states, even if they have had no discernable impact on presidential elections.

Hopefully, Congress will follow up on the bill (sponsored by Oklahoma Republican James Lankford) with the broader review that the PACEI failed to provide. Otherwise, we may have to deal with these issues for another decade or more until the taint clears on presidential reviews of election integrity.