It’s strange enough that Wayne Williams, Colorado’s Secretary of State, had to call a news conference to try to calm the political waters he had inadvertently roiled by embracing Donald Trump’s phony-baloney voter-fraud commission.
What’s worse is that Williams, even after his huge unforced error, completely misread why people should be outraged. This should not be that hard. Start with mistrust of government, add mistrust of the ever untrustworthy Trump and finish it off with mistrust of phony-baloney commissions. And there, in a country rightly worried about privacy issues, you have it.
Any politician worth the name should have been able to see this one coming. And now that I think of it, nearly every Secretary of State in the country other than Williams did see it coming.
Not only did Williams get it wrong when the survey came out, he got it wrong at the news conference when he unsuccessfully tried to SOS-splain his way out of this. If I had to guess, and I do, I’d guess that more people are upset now than before the news conference began.
Here’s the problem for Williams. There is no widespread voter fraud, and he knows it. There isn’t even much narrow-spread voter fraud. There’s no need for a commission. There would be no commission if Trump hadn’t made his bizarre and totally unsupported claim that the reason he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes is that 3 to 5 million people had voted illegally. The real mystery is how he could have lost by only 3 million.
In any case, once Trump made his fake-news tweet about illegal voters, fact-checkers across the land rushed to be the first to debunk the so-easy-to-debunk lie. Williams should have known there’d be a similar rush to debunk the fraudulent fraud commission. Instead, the best he could do was to mumble something about the survey, saying he would mostly comply, and then praising the seven bonus questions. One bonus question was asking voting officials for advice on how to keep voting results secure. Another was, of course, whether there was any evidence of voter fraud in the state.
When Williams was asked that fraud question at the news conference, he replied, “I have not seen any indication that occurred.” Not seen any indication. Which is not the same as saying, “In my experience, Colorado is the cleanest state in the country. We have great county clerks who oversee the process and we have the highest voting rate of any state. It’s insulting to even get asked that question. And it’s no wonder that Colorado voters are upset. I’m upset. Who wouldn’t be upset?”
Williams has often made statements praising Colorado’s voting record. Why didn’t he this time? I wonder if it has anything to do with, you know, being a Republican-led survey, pushed by a Republican president. I wonder if Williams understands this makes him look like a partisan hack. He couldn’t look worse if he had been caught setting up beach chairs for Chris Christie.
All Williams had to say was that he would comply with the request, but reluctantly, because voter fraud is a bogus issue, certainly in Colorado. Doesn’t Williams understand how unpopular Trump is in the state? If he’s unsure, he should ask Cory Gardner — if, that is, he can find him.
Other Secretaries of State haven’t been quite so diffident. For example, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, told commission members to “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.” From Minnesota, Democrats were recommending lakes as a jumping-off alternative. And from Connecticut, Denise Merrill, the Democratic Secretary of State, resisted the water analogy even though her state borders the Atlantic. She said she would provide publicly-available information but that she was deeply skeptical of any commission led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who, she pointed out, “has a lengthy record of illegally disenfranchising eligible voters in Kansas.” She points that out only because it’s true.
The nonpartisan Brennan Center offers a list of studies that have investigated the question of voter fraud in America. One comprehensive study, from law professor Justin Levitt, lists all 31 instances of voter impersonation he could find from the years 2000 to 2014. That’s 31 instances out of approximately one billion votes.
One member of the commission has resigned over the requested survey. Sure, there’s a great danger in overusing the phrase “witch hunt” — we’re not exactly in Joe McCarthy territory here — but you can see the temptation. Some of us can even recall a time when Scott Gessler, who preceded Williams at the job, was, in fact, conducting a witch hunt, claiming he had with him a list of possible fraudulent voters. It was all part of a shameful nationwide Republican effort to suppress the vote. You don’t really think all those voter ID laws are about integrity, do you?
So it’s hardly surprising that many Coloradans would go slightly nuts because it looks like the federal government is collecting private information in one giant snoop-fest. While it’s true that most, but not all, of the information the commission asked for is public information — the same material that you or I could get — that isn’t really the issue. We should all believe that governments can’t pick and choose who gets to receive public information. That’s why it’s, uh, public.
But here are the real issues, the ones that Williams seems to have missed about the commission: like, what the hell are they doing, why are they doing it to us, doesn’t it look like the first step on the road to voter suppression, and why would anyone trust Kris Kobach, who is vice-chair of the commission (Mike Pence is the chair), particularly once we learned that Kobach, a leader among voter-fraud truthers, was just fined $1,000 by a federal judge for “deceptive conduct and lack of candor” on just this issue.
If the law demands that Williams turns over certain information to the panel, it’s completely understandable that he would. But that’s not where Williams’ responsibility ends. There is still such a thing in America as public integrity. If Williams hopes to make any claim for his own integrity, he must say what he knows to be true. This is a dishonest commission, set up by a dishonest president, led by a voter-fraud zealot, designed to fool people into believing there’s a problem where no problem exists.