The Foxes Guarding the Henhouse: A Voting Rights Guide to the Trump White House

By Michael McDunnah November 18, 2016

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Immediately after Election Night, a few friends and colleagues posited the theory—tenuous, but desperately optimistic—that the reality of the Trump administration might be less extreme than we had been led to fear from the dangerous rhetoric of the Trump campaign. “Trump doesn’t really believe everything he said,” this theory went. “He just said all that stuff to mobilize his base.”

What Mr. Trump did or did not really believe was a source of speculation and suspense throughout his campaign, as there was little available evidence to judge how the provocations of the campaign trail might be translated into practice. But now, as Mr. Trump begins making appointments and rounding out his shortlist for key cabinet positions, the picture is becoming alarmingly clear. And any hopes of a more moderate Trump administration are fading fast.

The list of men Trump has put forth to serve at the pleasure of the president—and they are almost exclusively men—is deeply troubling. These men do have track records, and even a casual glance through their various and notorious curricula vitae is enough to know that they have disturbing agendas when it comes to voting rights.

So we thought it would be useful to rifle through a few of their resumes, with a particular eye towards their positions on voting rights and their histories with voter suppression. This round-up is necessarily incomplete—and far from comprehensive—but it’s already clear that the voting rights community will have our work cut out for us over the next four years.

MIKE PENCE — VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT

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Photo: Gage Skidmore

Narrowly elected to the governor’s office after the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s strict voter ID law—the first in the nation—Mike Pence has been called “the poster boy for voter ID.”

In Congress, Pence voted “Yes” on H.R. 4844, a bill that would have instituted a national requirement that voters in federal elections show photo ID and proof of citizenship.

In the 2016 election cycle, Pence helped push Trump’s “voter fraud” narrative. “Don’t kid yourself, voter fraud is real,” Pence said on the campaign trail. “In pockets and places around the country, in some polling places, the evidence over the years has been dramatic.” An Indiana organization conducting a voter registration drive in black communities has alleged that Pence’s office illegally used law enforcement to shut down their drive and disenfranchise their registrants.

Pence has also said that campaign finance reform is censorship. He has promised that the Trump administration will “end illegal immigration once and for all.” He has frequently boasted that he is “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” and his religious beliefs have led him to be one of the most virulent opponents of a woman’s right to choose and LGBTQ+ rights.

REINCE PRIEBUS — WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF

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Photo: Gage Skidmore

As the former chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, Priebus perpetuated the myth that the state was “riddled with voter fraud,” helping to set the stage for Wisconsin’s disastrously draconian voter ID law. As prominent Republicans predicted, this law helped deliver the state for the GOP for the first time in 32 years in 2016.

As chairman of the RNC, Priebus continued to perpetuate the myth of voter fraud. His statement on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act—a law Republican appointees to the Supreme Court gutted—was a coded message for further restrictions of voting rights “to ensure the integrity of the voting process by preventing things such as mistakes, fraud and confusion.”

In the 2016 campaign, Priebus echoed Trump’s preposterous claims that the election was rigged, and vigorously defended Trump’s call for his supporters to monitor the polls.

STEPHEN BANNON — CHIEF STRATEGIST

download-8Steve Bannon has been the executive chairman of Breitbart News since the death of Andrew Breitbart in 2012, and recently served as CEO of the Trump presidential campaign.

Since taking over Breitbart, Bannon pushed the already right-wing bias of the site even further right, proudly transforming it into a haven for “alt-right” white supremacy, anti-immigration hate-speak, homophobia, and misogyny.

(A sample of headlines appearing on Breitbart under Bannon’s rule include “The solution to online ‘harassment’ is simple: Women should log off,” “Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew,” “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage,” and “Gay rights have made us dumber, it’s time to get back in the closet.“) 

Bannon’s news empire has also long perpetuated the myth of “voter fraud,” embracing and amplifying disreputable right-wing mudslingers like James O’Keefe, who uses heavily edited “hidden camera” videos to manufacture phony “evidence” of voter fraud.

Last week Trump announced Steve Bannon would be his chief strategist. This announcement was greeted with great enthusiasm by white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups.

JEFF SESSIONS —ATTORNEY GENERAL

Jeff Sessions
Photo: Gage Skidmore

President-Elect Trump’s choice for the key position of Attorney General—the nation’s chief lawyer and law-enforcement officer—is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. As a U.S. senator from Alabama, Sessions has opposed marriage equality, abortion, the Affordable Care Act, the Violence Against Women Act, hate-crimes legislation, bills to prohibit torture of U.S. prisoners, and all paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

His record on voting rights is equally troubling. As a U.S. Attorney, Sessions falsely prosecuted black activists, known as the “Marion 3,” for alleged voter fraud. Later, as Alabama’s Attorney General, he continued to aggressively prosecute alleged voter fraud in the black community.

In 1986, President Reagan tried to appoint Sessions to be a federal judge. The nomination failed after DOJ lawyers testified that Sessions had made many racist statements. They also testified that he called civil rights groups like the ACLU and the NAACP “un-American” and “Communist” because they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.” He once told a white civil rights attorney he was a “disgrace to his race.”

Sessions is a strong proponent of requiring photo ID to vote. He has called the Voting Rights Act (VRA) a “piece of intrusive legislation,” and praised the Supreme Court’s disastrous gutting of the bill in 2013. Sessions doesn’t even allow that the South has a problem with discrimination in voting laws, saying that in “Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren’t being denied the vote because of the color of their skin.” He criticized former Attorney General Eric Holder for challenging states on suppressive voting laws. He criticized President Obama for failing to perpetuate the myth of voting by undocumented immigrants.

It is hard to imagine from all of this that a Sessions-led Justice Department will have much interest in enforcing the VRA or otherwise protecting the voting rights of people of color.

KRIS KOBACH — IMMIGRATION ADVISOR, SHORTLISTED FOR CABINET POSITIONS

13373693_0Kris Kobach, Secretary of State for Kansas, is a perennial, professional opponent of voting rights.

He authored Arizona’s notorious “Papers, Please” law, SB 1070, which empowered law enforcement to harass immigrants and people of color.

He is the architect of the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck program, a flawed interstate matching scheme—now adopted by over two dozen states—that disproportionately disenfranchises young, black, Latino, and Asian-American voters.

He is also America’s “Chicken Little” on the dangerous myth that there is a widespread problem with voting by non-documented immigrants. He crafted Kansas’s strict voter ID law, which requires documentary proof-of-citizenship in order to register to vote. And he sued—relentlessly, but unsuccessfully—to get these requirements added to the federal voter registration form. (His protégé, EAC director Brian Newby, then attempted to simply add the requirements to the federal form anyway, which brought a swift lawsuit from Project Vote and partners.)

It is frankly difficult to imagine a worse person to have the ear of the president on voting rights issues.

KEN BLACKWELL —HEAD OF TRANSITION TEAM FOR DOMESTIC ISSUES

Ken Blackwell
Photo: Gage Skidmore

Leading Trump’s transition team on domestic issues is J. Kenneth Blackwell, currently a senior-fellow at the Family Research Council, a group the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as an anti-LGBT hate-group.

Blackwell’s virulent homophobia is—and should be—of the gravest concern to civil rights groups. But so should his election administration record. While Blackwell served as Secretary of State for the vital swing state of Ohio in the 2004 election cycle, voters suffered nearly every voter suppression method known, including (but not limited to) mass voter challenges, draconian restrictions on voter registration drives, changed rules on provisional ballots, voting machine irregularities, misinformation from election officials, and reduced polling machines in predominantly black communities. (He even came up with some new ones, like decreeing that election officials could only process registration forms printed on a certain kind of paper stock.)

Congressman John Conyers literally wrote a book on the Ohio shenanigans, releasing the testimony from the House Judiciary Committee as a paperback entitled What Went Wrong in Ohio: The Conyers Report on the 2004 Presidential Election. “With regards to our factual findings, in brief, we find that there were massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies in Ohio,” the report states. “In many cases these irregularities were caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio.”

CHRIS CHRISTIE — SHORTLISTED FOR CABINET POSITIONS

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Photo: Gage Skidmore

Though recently removed as the head of the transition team, and perhaps out of favor altogether, the governor of New Jersey had been promised a prominent role in the Trump administration, and appeared until recently to be near the top of the shortlist for Attorney General.

And that would be a problem for voting rights. As governor of New Jersey, Christie vetoed a bill to institute automatic voter registration, expand early voting, offer online registration, and improve access to election materials for non-English speaking citizens.

He said New Jersey residents have plenty of opportunities to vote, because the state has early voting. Unfortunately, New Jersey only has early voting by absentee ballot hand-delivered to the county clerk: that’s because Christie also vetoed a bill that would have expanded early voting to polling places.

“Making voting easier for residents of his state is clearly not a priority for Christie,” opined the editorial board of the Times of Trenton.

CONCLUSION

As I said above, this list is both narrowly focused (on voting rights issues) and necessarily incomplete (due to the shifting nature of the Trump shortlist). But the picture it paints is nonetheless a disturbing one. What we see is a fierce investment in the widely debunked narrative of “voter fraud,” and widespread support for the policies of suppression that narrative supports. We see a common disregard for civil rights, and a contemptuous disdain for the laws, organizations, and individuals that protect those rights. And, in several key positions, we see men who have made it their missions to institutionalize discrimination and make voter suppression the law of the land.

This is of serious concern, if not entirely without precedent. Since the closely contested election of 2000, the GOP has reliably seized upon restrictive voting laws—and the supporting narrative of “voter fraud”—as the key to gaining and retaining power. During George W. Bush’s administration, we saw the Justice Department turned into a partisan arm of the voter suppression movement. That DOJ made few efforts to enforce voting rights laws like the VRA and the National Voter Registration Act, but it had rabid interest in forcing U.S. attorneys to falsely persecute voter registration drives in order to prove that voter fraud was rampant. (This blatant politicization of nation’s highest law-enforcement office came to be known as the “U.S. Attorneygate” scandal, and resulted in the resignations of Karl Rove and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in 2007.)

But, while the overall goals are familiar, the prospect of these men in positions of federal power gives us reason to fear that the scale and intensity of the Trump administration’s attacks on voting rights may be unprecedented. After all, there would arguably have not been a U.S. Attorneygate scandal if it were not for Ken Blackwell, whose voter suppression efforts helped return Bush to the White House in 2004, and who will now design the first 100 days of Trump’s domestic agenda. Kris Kobach has literally built his entire career on promoting hysteria about immigration and voter fraud. Jeff Sessions—a man ruled unfit for the bench due to a history of racist tendencies—will now be in charge of enforcing civil rights law. With men like this controlling the White House—and with the House, Senate, at least 25 states, and perhaps the Supreme Court securely in Republican control—we could see a voting-rights backlash like we haven’t seen since the days of Jim Crow.

In short, we have long fights ahead of us to preserve the hard-fought access to the ballot box for which countless Americans have struggled and died. And the time to start is now. We have to oppose the nominations of voting rights opponents. We have to advocate against the dangerous narratives and disastrous policies this administration may put forth. And we have to prepare, now, to go to court to fight them, in order to prevent the Trump administration’s legacy from including the long-term institutionalization of voter suppression.