A Philosopher's Blog

Trump’s Election Integrity Commission

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 5, 2017

The Trump regime recently created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and has requested information about voters from the states. As of this writing, 44 states and the District of Columbia have refused to provide all of the requested information. While ensuring the integrity of elections is a laudable goal, there are certainly important concerns about this commission, the motivations behind it, and the true goals.

While speculating about motivations is always problematic, there is adequate information to ground some reasonable explanations as to why Trump has created this commission. While the motivations for creating the commission are distinct from the desirability of its goals, motives are certainly relevant to moral assessment. Also, motivations generally involve goals. To avoid needless repetition, I will consider both motivations and goals at once.

One obvious motivation is Trump’s ego.  Trump infamously claimed, without any evidence, that he lost the popular election because there were 3-5 million illegal votes cast for Hillary Clinton. While Trump seems generally content to dwell within a realm of unsupported claims and untruths, he does have a clear motivation to find some evidence to back up his absurd and unsupported claim. While it might be tempting to dismiss this motivation as lacking in consequences, it would be a rather serious matter. After all, John Locke notes that tyranny occurs “…When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.” This can, obviously enough, be countered by arguing that Trump is not acting from “irregular passion” or by arguing that even if he is, the concern about election integrity does serve the good of the people. That is, despite the motivation the act is not tyrannical because of its intended goal. If the true goal is real election integrity, then this reply would be quite reasonable—although Trump’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons should still be condemned.

A second motivation can be found in the fact that the Republican party has long used the specter of voter fraud to justify polices that are aimed at voter suppression. While voter fraud does occur at a non-zero level, it is just barely above zero. There is also the fact that the usual Republican proposals, such as voter ID, would generally not be effective at countering the voter fraud that does occur. This is not to say that voter fraud should not be considered, just that it occurs at such a microscopic rate that the only rational explanation for the Republican policies is voter suppression targeted at those who they regard as likely to vote for Democrats, such as minority voters. It should be noted that the Democrats need not be regarded as moral saints here; they utilize other morally problematic methods when they can gain an edge.

The creation of the commission helps support the narrative of voter fraud in that some will believe that there must be fraud because otherwise Trump would not have created the commission. The fact that some states have been resisting the commission’s requests is already being spun as evidence that the states are covering up fraud (even though Republican controlled states are also not fully cooperating). The commission does not need to find any actual evidence of meaningful voter fraud to support the narrative—after all, the myth of significant voter fraud has already been embraced without any evidence at all.

While it might be tempting to think that the information being requested by the Trump commission could expose voter fraud, it is important to be clear about the distinction between the accuracy of voter rolls and the existence of voter fraud. This can be illustrated by using an analogy.

Whenever I teach a class, I get a roster of the students who are enrolled in the class. This can be seen as analogous to the list of registered voters. Since students can add or drop my course, the roster I have for the class is often inaccurate. There are sometimes students who think they have enrolled, but have not. There are also those who think they have dropped the class, but who are still enrolled. Likewise, the list of voters is often inaccurate. For example, people move to a new state and legitimately register to vote there while they remain on the list in their old state. As another example, people die and are not automatically removed from the list. There are also various other errors that can occur with any lists of people. Having an inaccurate list is obviously a problem, but it is not the same thing as fraud. To continue the analogy, consider the sort of fraud that occurs in class, namely cheating. If I happen to have an inaccurate roster of those enrolled in my class at the time, it does not follow that students are cheating in my class. Likewise, the voter lists in states could have many inaccuracies, but this does not prove that voter fraud is occurring.

Obviously enough, an inaccurate roster for a class could be used to facilitate cheating and a student lying about being enrolled in the class would be a form of fraud. Likewise, inaccurate voter lists could be exploited to commit fraud. For example, if someone had a list of dead people who are still registered, this information could be used to engage in “ghost voting.” Fortunately, there is no evidence that the problems with the voter lists are being exploited to commit significant fraud. As such, the concerns about the voter lists is rather like that of concerns about the class rosters: they should be accurate, but their inaccuracy does not entail cheating or fraud is taking place.

This is not to say that the defects of the current system should be ignored or tolerated—the system does need a major overhaul. However, Trump’s commission does not seem aimed at assisting the states improve their registration systems nor aimed at ensuring that the elections are conducted with integrity. Rather, this seems to be part of Trump’s theater of fraud.



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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2008

Recently, ACORN has become a focus of controversy. The main concern is that people employed by ACORN turned in fake voter registration forms (including one for Mickey Mouse and another for Jimmy John-the sandwich shop).  McCain’s campaign is accusing Obama of being involved with ACORN and Obama’s defenders are countering this attack.

The claim that ACORN has turned in fake voter registration forms is true and is not in dispute. It is, however, important to keep the following fact in mind: by law, ACORN cannot decide what forms it will turn in to the officials. After all, it is not up to ACORN or other such voter registration organizations to decide which forms are valid and which are fakes. That is the responsibility of the state. As such, if fraudulent forms are turned into ACORN, they must be turned in to the state.  Of course, there is concern about why ACORN has gathered so many fraudulent forms.

One possibility is that people in ACORN intended to engage in voter fraud by creating a number of fake voter identities and then using them to influence the election. This practice is not unheard of. After all, it used to be joked that the dead were a major voting block in Chicago. As such, it is reasonable to be concerned about attempts at voter fraud.

Of course, there is a big difference between turning in fake voter registration forms and actual voting fraud. For a fake form to enable someone to vote, the form would have to get past the verification process. Further, the person going to cast the vote under a fake identity would need the documentation to support this false identity. As such, if ACORN was going to conduct voter fraud, they would need to take steps to get the fake registrations through the verification process and then get the fake voters through the verification process at the polls. However, the fake forms turned in by ACORN were rather easily spotted and there seems to be no evidence that ACORN has taken steps to prepare the means for fake voters to cast their fraudulent votes. As such, either ACORN was not involved in a conspiracy or it was a rather pathetic one. Then again, perhaps there are fake forms that were cleverly filled out and managed to get through the verification process. This does remain a possibility.

As second possibility is that certain people employed by ACORN created fraudulent voter forms on their own and turned them in to ACORN. Since people are paid to register people to vote and going around to register real voters can be a lot of work, there is a clear incentive for some unethical people to simply fill out forms on their own. As a matter of fact, it has been found that this actually took place in some cases. As such, the fraudulent forms can be explained in this manner without there being a conspiracy on the part of ACORN. While this gets ACORN off one hook, it does raise concerns about who ACORN hires and what steps are taken to ensure that these people follow the law. Given the number of fraudulent forms turned in, it is clear that ACORN and other organizations need to take steps to deal with this problem.