I know all about common names. I have heard all the jokes, as had my father, a unique and remarkable man named Bob Smith. Unfortunately, common names like ours are just one of many problems that will face Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in his new role as co-chair of President Donald Trump’s Election Integrity Commission. Recall that in 2010, candidate Kobach publicly declared he planned to remove Mr. Alfred K. Brewer from the Wichita voting rolls because he had died. Brewer was surprised to hear this when journalists found him alive, raking leaves. The deceased was actually his father, Alfred K. Brewer Sr., who would have been 110 years old at the time.
Screening lists for suffixes like “Junior,” “Senior” and “III” is not a foolproof procedure. For example, former President George W. Bush is not a “Junior” because he lacks one of his father’s two middle names. How about birthdays? A few years ago, two political scientists studied Georgia’s voter rolls, only to discover numerous instances of two different people (and in a few cases, more than two) with the same matching first, middle and last names and birthdays — including the year. Seem unlikely? Georgia has nearly 5 million registered voters, so even a one-in-a-million chance means there will be a few such cases — and with common names, the chances of a name and birthday match are considerably higher. If Kobach proceeds with his plans to amalgamate all states’ voting lists, it will add up to more than 150 million voters. A dataset this large will generate many duplicates, and many more near-duplicates, even with no fraud at all.
The commission’s project seems to be an extension of CrossCheck, a system Kobach developed in which several states compare election data to search for duplicates. Now he wants to take it national. Yet critics content that Kobach’s projects are really about voter caging, which refers to sending response-requested postcards to certain voters, then cancelling registrations if they do not reply. For most people, these mailers are easily confused with junk mail and discarded, never delivered by the post office, or put at the bottom of the to-do pile. Non-response does not mean a voter had moved or died, or that a registration is fraudulent. Also, caging is rarely done statewide, instead, it usually targets urban precincts with large minority populations. The National Voter Registration Act “motor voter” law of 1993 included a section that was supposed to sharply restrict caging, but it still happens.
Even when duplicates are truly duplicates, it probably is not voter fraud. Journalists recently discovered President Trump’s daughter, Tiffany, not to mention several members of his administration, are all registered to vote in multiple states. Once again, this is not fraud. States and counties are supposed to notify each other when a new voter registers, so that person can be removed from the rolls at the old residence. In practice, this rarely happens. State and county election offices are overwhelmed, understaffed and underfunded. Meanwhile, voters always are moving, turning 18 and becoming eligible or dying. What this proves is not fraud, but rather, the states’ and counties’ desperate need to update decrepit and underfunded voting offices with new staffing, procedures and equipment. Never fully funded, the Help America Vote Act of 2003 is now 14 years old, and new evidence keeps surfacing about the vulnerability of electronic voting machines to hackers. No wonder most voters prefer paper ballots.
If Trump, Kobach and Congress are serious about protecting our elections, a fully funded new HAVA, universal access to paper ballots, new security protocols, and better training and staffing will go a lot further than will this quixotic quest for voter fraud.
Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.