Understanding Donald Trump’s Voter Registration Talking Points

Trump and NRA
Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, via Wikimedia Commons

For months now, Donald Trump and his surrogates have been making the false claim that millions of votes were fraudulently cast in the last election. During a Super Bowl Sunday interview, Donald Trump repeated these claims on national television. On his Sunday morning talk show debut earlier this month, White House Advisor Stephen Miller doubled down Mr. Trump’s debunked claim about widespread voter fraud.

When confronted with the complete lack of evidence to support his claims, Trump pivots to voter registration inaccuracies:

You have millions of people who are registered in two states or who are dead who are registered to vote.” This is the same link that Mr. Trump has been pushing for weeks.

 In a pre-Super Bowl interview Trump said: “It has to do with registration…you see dead people that have voted, when you see people that are registered in two states – and that voted in two states – when you see other things, when you see illegals, people that are not citizens and they are on the registration rolls…it’s a really bad situation.”

While this pivot to voter registration doesn’t provide any evidence of widespread fraud, it does provide important insight into Mr. Trump’s strategy.

So, why has Trump spent so much time focusing on bloated voter registration lists? It’s not to combat true voter fraud. Trump’s attempt to link errors on our voter registration lists to evidence of widespread fraud is an illusion and a con.

Yes, voter registration lists in some states are out-of-date, but that is not voter fraud. People move, people die and informing their local board of elections isn’t always their top priority.

There is no evidence that these double registered individuals are voting in more than one place. While there are many dead people on the rolls, they don’t vote. The author of the study Trump relies on has repeatedly explained the study does not show fraud, merely list maintenance issues.

It’s also not about simply improving our voter registration lists. When mentioning voter registration, Trump and his surrogates seem uninterested in pursuing the best practices for voter registration and modernization (discussed more below). Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives took the first steps recently to dismantle the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the agency tasked with ensuring the integrity of our elections and the only federal agency that provides guidance on voter registration practices.

Rather than fixing the problem, it appears this administration plans to use evidence of bureaucratic voter registration errors as an excuse to make it harder to register to vote. Many states have already sought to increase the costs and burdens of registration by rolling back same-day registration, imposing burdensome documentary proof of citizenship requirements, and seeking to limit (and even criminalize) large-scale voter registrations efforts.

This is a new and dangerous chapter of the voter fraud myth. The false flag of “voter fraud” has been a tried and true justification for unnecessary restrictions on the right to vote since our nation’s founding. “Fraud” was the justification for all-white primaries and poll taxes and voter purges in the Jim Crow South and it’s the excuse for strict voter ID laws now. Lawmakers continue to insist on widespread voter fraud crackdowns despite repeated investigations that have all come up empty-handed, including a fruitless five-year hunt by the George W. Bush administration.

The link between out-of-date voter rolls and illegally cast votes that Mr. Trump is trying to draw serves two purposes.

First, it offers “evidence” where a voter fraud investigation otherwise cannot succeed. Even Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state, Trump advisor, and perhaps the most avid proponent of the voter fraud myth – conducted a widespread investigation with paltry results. Thus, by shifting his focus to voter registration inaccuracies, Mr. Trump is trying to salvage his so-called investigation from inevitable failure. The trouble is that this conflation of bureaucratic error with voter fraud is the true fraud.

Second, Trump is almost certainly laying the groundwork to restrict voter registration at the federal level. Kobach has been leading the efforts to require “proof of citizenship” to register to vote in Kansas and nationally. To be clear, citizens are already required to attest to their citizenship under penalty of perjury on all voter registration forms. There is no evidence that this proof is insufficient. Yet Kobach insists documentary proof of citizenship requirements are necessary, radically transforming the simple process from one that can easily be completed at voter registration drives, public libraries and public agencies, into a multi-step process requiring voters to unearth their birth certificates, make copies and mail in their applications.

For voters without easy access to the necessary underlying documentation, the process can become a bureaucratic nightmare. When this requirement was actually imposed in Kansas, under Kobach’s leadership, tens of thousands of voter registration applications were rejected.

Voter registration is the front door to our democracy. Increasing the burdens on registration tends to have the effect of freezing the electorate in place. Young people, newly naturalized citizens, and others seeking to enter the political arena for the first time will face higher burdens than those already on the registration list.

Thus far, these requirements have been stymied by the National Voter Registration Act, a bill that streamlined voter registration nationwide in order to increase voter participation. But Trump could try to undo the NVRA’s protections of a simple voter registration process. Kobach met with Trump during the transition to discuss proposed amendments to the NVRA and Senator Ted Cruz has already introduced a bill allowing states to require proof of citizenship in the registration process. Given Trump’s connection of voter registration inaccuracies to his claims of widespread fraud, we can expect these attacks on voter registration to escalate.

Leaders on both sides of the aisle must counter Trump’s claims with the facts and put forward reasonable solutions to the real problems plaguing our voter registration systems. These solutions include vetted best practices such as automatic voter registration and participation in the Electronic Registration Information Center, a multi-state partnership that provides sophisticated and secure voter registration data-matching across states, which can expand access to voting and eliminate widespread inaccuracy. Congress should reverse course on the EAC and instead pass legislation that strengthens the EAC.

We should harness the extraordinary civic engagement of this past month to engage new voters through voter registration efforts. The protections of the NVRA make voter registration a simple task – voters can help their neighbors register to vote through one-stop drives at public libraries, hospitals, and shopping centers.

It’s a mistake for voter registration efforts to only occur in the run-up to a major election. Given the likely threat to voter registration ahead, continuous voter registration should be a priority for everyone interested in supporting civic engagement.

Finally, when and if voter registration restrictions are passed, we’ll rely on the courts to uphold our rights. And the Trump Administration will have to defend their measures in court.

In a time when falsehoods and truths compete, our voting rights depend on ensuring hard evidence prevails. In the meantime, we must work to register every eligible citizen to vote.

Danielle is CLC's Senior Director, Voting Rights.