Throughout his candidacy and Presidency, President Donald Trump has made statements like “Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire, and California – so why isn’t the media reporting on this? Serious bias – big problem!” These sentiments came to a head in May 2017 when he signed Executive Order 13799 establishing the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. According to the official White House website, “… the Commission shall, consistent with applicable law, study the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections.” Their mission statement also indicates that the Commission will be “solely advisory.”
Immediately following its inception, the Commission drew harsh criticism from many sides, as their initial meeting was focused on President Trump’s claim that millions of votes had been cast in favor of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Upon the Commission’s first action, in which they called upon each of the states to submit their voter registration records, cries of overreach began as various amounts of pushback began to occur. Some states, such as New York, voiced disgust with the request, with Governor Andrew Cuomo saying “We will not be complying with this request and I encourage the Election Commission to work on issues of vital importance to voters, including ballot access, rather than focus on debunked theories of voter fraud.” Other states, including Kansas, the home state of the Vice-Chair of the Commission, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, have indicated that they’d only be able to turn over certain amounts of information.
Many of these complaints raised by the states were tied to security concerns, as well as matters of relevance to the duties of the Commission. With these large levels of resistance from state governments, a question of the intention of the unfolding events arises. While there is the possibility that the large levels of disagreement are simply tied to safety concerns and policy disagreements on the need for federal access to voter archives, there is also the potential for the widespread pushback to be occurring because the state governments feel that the actions taken by the Commission are in line with those of a backsliding Democracy.
Heather Gerken, in her Vox article “We’re about to See States’ Rights Used Defensively against Trump.”, discusses the idea of Uncooperative Federalism, in which the support that the federal government normally receives from state and local enforcement of laws is eroded due to resistance from those entities. By refusing to comply with federal regulations, states influence the effectiveness of certain policies. In cases where policies may erode democratic institutions or norms, the resistance prevents or lessens democratic backsliding. Gerken’s example of the refusal multiple states, like Montana, to enforce the increased civil liberty restrictions of the PATRIOT Act provides a clear reference for how uncooperative federalism can be utilized to prevent antidemocratic policies from being fully enacted.
An explanation for the prevalence of state resistance to President Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity could, then, be based upon Gerken’s ideas of uncooperative federalism and the process through which states can resist certain laws. In order to prevent what some states viewed as federal overreach and an invasion of privacy and others viewed even as steps towards increasing voter suppression, officials from both Democrat and Republican states have publicly announced their intentions to not comply with the requests of the Commission. Along with this, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap filed a lawsuit against the Commission last week. His reasons include that there “… is a cynical partisan effort to exaggerate the frequency of fraudulent voting, that [the Commission] flouts legal regulations, and that its token Democratic participants have been systematically shunned.”, according to a Slate article on the topic. If Secretary Dunlap’s allegations are upheld in court, then the Commission’s goals will have been tainted by partisan leanings. While this supports a narrative of the Commission having major political preferences, his assessment of the situation doesn’t necessarily indicate that attempts to destabilize American democratic institutions or norms are present. Even if the intentions of the Commission were to push for the previously mentioned destabilization to occur, those goals would never willingly be made public.
Because of that, then, the true nature of the resistance to Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity can’t be clearly defined at this point. Certain indicators, such as the fact that the resistance is spread across multiple states and comes from various parts of the political spectrum, point towards the idea that it may be more rooted in true defense of established democratic practices then attempts to prevent partisan policies from being implemented. The process of resistance so far has also similarly lined up to the Uncooperative Federalism outlined in Gerken’s article, supporting the idea that the lack of compliance will affect the results of the report from the Commission and thus affect the desired policy implementation. Themes of resistance to backsliding are evident in the events that have occurred with the Commission so far, but until Secretary Dunlap’s lawsuit is further heard in court and more clear signs of attempts to destabilize American democracy in order to consolidate executive power are present, President Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity may just be a partisan attempt to further enact voting policies and support the narratives of the Trump Administration instead of a true attempt to erode American democratic institutions.