Will Trump talk of voter fraud threaten legitimate voter rights?

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Turning now to another initiative from the president, this one about the integrity of our elections.

Mr. Trump has again repeated the unproven claim that millions of illegal votes were cast in the last election, and now he says he will order a federal investigation to look into it.

William Brangham has that story.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re in a rigged system, folks. We’re in a rigged system. They even want to try to rig the election at the polling booths.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He made it a rallying cry during his presidential campaign. Now, having won the White House, President Trump is raising the issue yet again.

On Twitter today, he announced: “I will be asking for a major investigation into voter fraud. Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures.”

This follows his remarks to congressional leaders on Monday, where, in a closed-door meeting, the president repeated his claim that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because of three to five million illegal votes being cast for her.

In fact, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the presidential election last fall. And what’s more, previous studies have found no such evidence going back to 2000.

Top Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, underscored that point yesterday.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: I have seen no evidence to that effect. And I have made that very, very clear.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham went further, telling the president to knock it off.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: If the president of the United States is claiming that 3 to 3.5 million people voted illegally, that shakes confidence in our democracy. He needs to disclose why he believes that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Still, the president persists, as his White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, acknowledged on Tuesday.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: He continues to maintain that belief.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And President Trump’s pick for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, said at his confirmation hearing this month that he believes — quote — “We regularly have fraudulent activities occur during election cycles.”

Today, White House spokesman Spicer said the investigation that the president wants is about the integrity of the system.

SEAN SPICER: There’s a lot of people that are dead that are on rolls. There are people that are voting in tow places or that are on the rolls in two different states. I think taking the necessary steps to study and to track what we can do to understand is something that is definitely, clearly in the best interests.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Senator Bernie Sanders and leading Democrats fired back that the president is actually — quote — “telling Republicans to accelerate voter suppression” with stricter voter I.D. laws.

Spicer acknowledged today that expanding controversial voter I.D. laws could be one outcome of the investigation.

For more on the president’s unproven allegations and his call for an investigation, I’m joined now by Rick Hasen. He’s a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and writes the Election Law Blog, and by Alex Padilla, who is California’s secretary of state. He’s a Democrat, and he oversees elections there.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

Rick Hasen, I would like to start with you.

The allegation on the table is that three or four or five million people voted illegally in this last election. Is there any evidence that that went on?

RICK HASEN, University of California, Irvine: There’s no evidence that that went on. There is no evidence even that thousands or even hundreds of illegal votes were cast.

And, you know, think about five million people involved in a conspiracy that no one has been able to detect, even in those states with Republican secretaries of state that are looking out for this kind of fraud that is supposedly happening. It is just a ludicrous idea.

And if you were going do this and engage in this vast conspiracy, you would think that you would be able to actually swing the results of the election and put maybe 10,000 or 20,000 more votes in Michigan and in Pennsylvania. It just — it is a ludicrous accusation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Secretary of State Padilla, the same question to you. You oversaw an election in the biggest state in the country. How much election fraud did you see in your state?

ALEX PADILLA, California Secretary of State: Look, I can honestly tell that you we have zero evidence of any non-citizens voting in the November election here in the state of California.

We take voter fraud very seriously and invite anybody that has information about irregularities or wrongdoing to bring it forward. And we’re happy to look into it. I extended that offer to team Trump back in November. And that offer still stands.

But, like Rick mentioned, there’s zero evidence of this happening. Here’s what my bigger concern is. And I think the more that President Trump and the administration calls into question the integrity of the elections, they’re simply setting the stage for proposed changes to policy and changes to law that will follow that will take our country backwards as it pertains to voting rights.

And we need to push back every step of the way.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Mr. Padilla, though, staying with you, a lot of conservatives will argue that if you don’t need to have an I.D. to prove you are who you say you are when you go to vote, couldn’t there be widespread voter fraud, and you just wouldn’t know about it?

ALEX PADILLA: There’s a lot of hypotheticals that people would like to kind of put out there to create the concern, to create the doubt.

But the fact of the matter is, voter fraud isn’t something that we just started paying attention to in this November election. It is a question that comes up in each and every election cycle. And there has been study after study, report after report, investigation after investigation in a variety of sectors that all conclude the same thing.

Voter fraud may be very, very isolated, but at the end of the day, it is nearly nonexistent.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Rick, a question for you.

Sean Spicer today tried to seemingly dial down the accusations that Donald Trump had made. And he said that the investigation, if it goes forward, will look at things like dead people on the voter rolls or people being registered in two different states.

Interestingly today, it turned out that the president’s daughter, his commerce secretary pick and his counselor Steve Bannon were themselves all registered to vote in two different states.

But those things happening, dead people on voter rolls or registering in two states, is that evidence of fraud?

RICK HASEN: Well, there is occasional fraud.

But almost all of these accusations of dead people voting turn out to be either bureaucratic incompetence or voter error. So, a few years ago, there was a sensationalized statement in North Carolina that there were tons of dead people voting. And when they actually investigated, they found that not one of those involved voter fraud.

Mostly what they involved was either a mistake where, say, a senior was confused for a junior, or a voter signed on the wrong line in the poll book. And there is a lot of dead wood. There are a lot of people who move from one state to another. That may be what is happening with some of the people in the Trump administration.

And their old registration is not canceled. But we have very little evidence of people engaging in — certainly in impersonation fraud, which you mentioned earlier, double voting, very rare.

The kind of fraud that does happen, when it does happen, tends to be absentee ballot fraud. And that is the one kind of fraud I have not heard Donald Trump mentioning anything about trying to cut down on.

If we really cared about fraud, that would be number one on the list. And it’s not even on the list, apparently.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Secretary Padilla, we often see, after there are accusations of voter fraud, very soon thereafter, there are attempts to crack down and to pass stiffer voting I.D. laws. Do you expect to see that in the wake of this investigation?

ALEX PADILLA: That’s frankly my biggest fear here.

You know, we have heard the allegations starting in November about rampant voter fraud with not a shred of evidence or proof to back it up. Now we are hearing not just those allegations yet again, but now a call for a major investigation, to use his words, an investigation based on allegations that are not based in reality or in any evidence whatsoever.

That’s where we are today. And like I said, if this is simply setting the tone for going backwards on voting rights in America, that is something that we ought to be concerned about and be prepared to push back on, because we have seen the playbook. Look what has happened in state after state after state across the country, overly aggressive purging of voter rolls, very creatively written voter I.D. laws, the elimination or significant reduction of early voting opportunities, making it harder for American citizens to be registered to vote and to actually cast a ballot.

That’s unpatriotic, in my opinion, un-American and undemocratic.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Rick Hasen, let’s say this investigation that is being called for by the Trump administration goes forward. Could it be a good thing? If so, how would you like it to unfold?

RICK HASEN: Well, I think if we had an investigation into the extent to which there is voter fraud and suppression, and we had it with bipartisan, well-respected people in charge, as we had in 200, when we had Presidents Carter and Ford, or in 2004, when we had President Carter and James Baker, or in 2008, when we had Ben Ginsberg and Bob Bauer, two Republican and Democratic election lawyers, if we had professionals, we had election administrators all involved, and we looked at the whole picture, do these laws suppress more votes than prevent — than the amount of fraud they prevent, I think that would be a great thing.

I just don’t think that that is what Donald Trump’s administration is going to set up. And so I don’t have a lot of confidence that the investigation would be a full, fair investigation on a bipartisan basis that really looks at evidence to get to the truth.

ALEX PADILLA: And I would offer two things, if I may.

Short term, if the president really was interested about the integrity of the November election that just took place, he ought to pick up that intelligence briefing. The intelligence community is unanimous in their findings that there was foreign interference with our elections this November.

The president ought to acknowledge that and he should act on that. Longer term, if the Trump administration really wants to be helpful and the Republican Congress really wants to be helpful, there would be another round of election funding. The last time there was significant investment into how we conduct elections came in the wake of Florida in 2000.

Congress acted on a bipartisan basis, put moneys out to the state for the upgrade of our voting systems. But those systems are now more than a decade old. And as the Brennan Center and other bipartisan commissions have told us, that is probably the ticking time bomb threat to our elections. We need to invest in new equipment.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Alex Padilla, the secretary of state of California, and Rick Hasen, U.C. Irvine, thank you both very much.

ALEX PADILLA: Thanks.

RICK HASEN: Thank you.

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