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We Don't Need a Presidential Commission on Voter Fraud

Tags Decentralization and SecessionU.S. History


A few months before the 2016 election, the Obama administration was claiming that the federal government needed to seize control of the election process because, according to CNN "Vladimir Putin's hackers could wreak havoc" on the electoral process.

Attempts at federalizing elections have long been a dream of the left, and the claim of Russian "hacking" of elections offered a convenient excuse for saying that states could no longer be allowed independence in the matter.

Not to be outdone by the left's imagined Russians behind every tree and farm wall, the Trump administration is now trying to come up with reasons of its own to justify federal meddling in elections. 

Sure that states everywhere are being overrun by voting illegal aliens (including, apparently, Republican-controlled states), Donald Trump has convened a new "election integrity commission" which is seeking to uncover voter fraud. 

This should not surprise us, of course. Thanks to the presence of Drug Warrior Jeff Sessions within the administration, it's long been clear that Donald Trump is perfectly at ease with the idea of the federal government bossing around state governments. 

Last week, the vice chairman of the commission sent a letter to all 50 states requesting a wide array of materials about voters.

The requested data includes

registrants' full names, addresses, dates of birth, political parties, the last four digits of their social security numbers, a list of the elections they voted in since 2006, information on any felony convictions, information on whether they were registered to vote in other states, their military status, and whether they lived overseas.

Much of this information is already publicly available in many states, and the collection of the data itself doesn't represent an especially onerous move. 

What the commission plans to do with the information is another matter, however, and many states have declined to assist a federal task force in coming up with yet more ways to federalize everything. 

Not surprisingly, then, the response of many Secretaries of State (the state-level office that usually administers elections) was to refuse portions of the request or the request in its entirety. Officials from at least 44 states have told the federal group "thanks but no thanks." 

Nor has the response been partisan in nature. In Mississippi, for example, a state hardly known for its leftwing politics, the Republican Secreatary of State Delbert Hosemann offered a colorful reply to the commission: 

"My reply would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from," he said. "Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our state's right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes."

Given the fact that much of this info is already public, some Trump supporters are acting dismayed at the state-level resistance. Conservative Byron York, for instance, sympathetically reports sources who describe the unfriendly responses to the commission as "absurd" and "silly." 

Why, the Trump administration is just trying to get to the bottom of voter fraud! is York's perplexed response. Who could possibly be against that? York concludes: 

Now the Trump commission is seeking answers. To do so, it needs the information that, until now, many states routinely gave out to interested parties. Now, however, the states appear to be spoiling for a fight. Given the amount of public posturing involved so far, it's not at all clear the commission can succeed.

Whether or not there's voter fraud is a question that should be asked. But it's a question that states and counties can ask just fine, without any help from Donald Trump. If the states conduct elections in a way the federal government doesn't like, then the only response from the states should be "tough luck." York is right that a lot of the data the commission wants is already publicly available. But this shouldn't be seen as a principled opposition to federal use of private data. That's pretty clearly not the issue. It's more likely that state officials simply have no interest in helping a federal commission come up with new directives and "suggestions" for state governments to follow. They've all seen plenty of that over the past century. 

The historical and legal roots of this relationship were outlined last year at mises.org

Most Americans probably assume that elections are now and always have been, constitutionally, the domain of the federal government. But, this has never been the case. The Federal Election Commission wasn't even created until 1975, and even now, the FEC's power is limited primarily to regulating campaign finance, and not elections. 

The federal takeover of elections, to the extent that it has been successful, has primarily been carried out by the courts, with the Supreme Court and other federal courts handing down decisions to states in regards to how elections must be conducted. 

The courts have, for example, long intervened to prevent state governments from requiring that voters provide proof of citizenship or even proof of identity in order to vote. It is, apparently, a human rights violation to require that voters are who they say they are. 

The American left has long hated any state-level attempts to regulate voting since it has long been assumed that limitations on voter turnout works to the favor of Republicans. (This claim about turnout is highly debatable.) Thus, it is not surprising to see articles like this one from The Daily Kos which advocates for a total federal takeover of elections. 

This thinking is based on the long-worn claim that state governments are reactionary and retrograde — always seeking to disenfranchise populations — while the federal government is magnanimous and open to expanding the franchise. 

Historically, this is easily disproved. State governments have long displayed extremely diverse agendas on voting. Indeed, during the 19th century, many Western and Midwestern states had very liberal laws when it came to what is called "declarant alien voting" in which 22 states and territories extended the vote to non-citizens. By doing so, the states also — in effect — lowered the bar for citizenship while encouraging immigration into those states. Western states also were among the first to extend the franchise to women with Wyoming granting women the vote in 1869, a full 50 years before the federal government followed suit. 

Montana was the first state to elect a woman to Congress — Jeanette Rankin — before the adoption of the 19th Amendment federalizing policy on women's suffrage. Today, women comprise a higher percentage of representatives in state legislatures than in the US Congress. (Colorado has the highest percentage with 42 percent of General Assembly members being women.) 

The original philosophy behind state control of elections is easy to understand, given the intended — and now ignored —decentralized structure of the United States. 

This was explicit in the first Constitution of 1776 (i.e., the so-called Articles of Confederation) but continued in a watered-down form with the new Constitution in 1788. In terms of Congressional representation, states were to elect their representatives in a manner chosen by the state, with state control over who could vote. 

If the Trump administration wants to do some good, it could direct its efforts toward getting federal courts out of state election, and let states investigate for themselves whether or not there's voter fraud. If the feds want to investigate something, let them investigate the feds. And leave everyone else alone.



Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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