In the fall of 2002, just over a year after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft summoned a group of federal prosecutors to Washington. He had a new mission he wanted them to focus on: voter fraud. “Votes have been bought, voters intimidated and ballot boxes stuffed,” he told the attendees of the Justice Department’s inaugural Voting Integrity Symposium. “Voters have been duped into signing absentee ballots believing they were applications for public relief. And the residents of cemeteries have infamously shown up at the polls on Election Day.”
This might seem an unusually dark portrait of America’s electoral system, coming from the nation’s top prosecutor. But Ashcroft spoke from personal experience. In 2000, as a U.S. senator from Missouri, he lost his reelection bid to a dead man. His opponent, Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash three weeks before Election Day. It was too late to remove the governor’s name from the ballot, so his wife, Jean, announced she would serve his term. Mel Carnahan won by 49,000 votes. Ashcroft and his fellow Missouri Republicans were outraged. Skeptical that voters might simply have preferred any Carnahan to him, Ashcroft and other Republicans accused Democrats in St. Louis of trying to steal the election by keeping the polls open later than usual. They dubbed it a “major criminal enterprise.” That December, George W. Bush nominated the out-of-work Ashcroft to be his first attorney general.
Ashcroft didn’t mention any of this in his speech, but the subtext was hard to ignore. “There is nothing funny about winning an election with stolen votes,” he said. “All of us pay the price for voting fraud.” To combat this, he declared, the Justice Department had launched a new “voting access and integrity initiative.” This was not the kind of announcement that was grabbing headlines at the time. Much of the country’s attention was focused on the mounting discussion of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. But voter fraud was a preoccupation of conservatives, who had nursed a variety of conspiracy theories stemming from the disputed 2000 election that put Bush in office.
In the closest presidential race in a century, Bush had eked out just 271 electoral votes. His opponent, Al Gore, had taken the popular vote by 540,000 ballots. Many Republicans believed the popular vote had been stolen and voter fraud was to blame. They talked of fraudulent absentee ballots and ex-felons voting illegally in Florida. Scott Jennings, who worked with Karl Rove as the White House associate director of political affairs, told investigators from the Office of the Inspector General that “many Republicans believed that fraudulent registration by Democratic Party voters in New Mexico was a widespread problem and that it had cost President Bush the state in the 2000 presidential election.” (Gore won New Mexico by 366 votes.) Later, when Bush ran for reelection in 2004, Rove himself went on Fox News and told Sean Hannity he was concerned about voter fraud in Ohio and other battleground states. “There are multiple registrations on the rolls,” Rove said. “There are felons who are ineligible to vote who are registered on the rolls.”
Democrats, for their part, complained that voter fraud wasn’t the crime that needed investigating. It was voter suppression, like the purge of voter rolls in Florida, that they said had disproportionately targeted African-American voters. But Democrats weren’t in power, so they didn’t get to decide what the Justice Department would spend its time on.
Ashcroft commissioned the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys to make voting fraud a priority of their offices. Over the next four years, those prosecutors launched more than 300 investigations. But in the end, the government had little to show for it. On July 26, 2006, the day before Bush signed a renewal of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department released a fact sheet summarizing the Voting Integrity Initiative’s accomplishments. Federal prosecutors had charged 119 people with election crimes and convicted just 86. The worst examples were vote-buying schemes in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia that helped keep local politicians in power. Cases that had fixated GOP officials—like the “major criminal enterprise” in St. Louis—were not substantiated. Instead, most of the cases involved individuals who had cast a single ballot that they shouldn’t have, or hadn’t even voted at all but simply had registered improperly. Some of them went to prison. At least one person was deported. The targets that ended up getting the most attention weren’t the alleged fraudsters but the handful of U.S. attorneys who didn’t push hard enough for prosecutions and were forced to resign.
“It’s remarkable that all of the U.S. attorneys had a mandate and were given adequate resources to raise this to the top of the pile,” says David Becker, who was a trial attorney in the voting section of the Justice Department until 2005 and is now executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “They all agree we found a handful of cases … and that was it.”
But that wasn’t it. Not by a long shot. Eleven years after the books were closed on Ashcroft’s probe, another voter fraud investigation is gearing up. Once again, it is being driven by a Republican president who is convinced that he was robbed of the popular vote by a massive conspiracy, larger perhaps than even Bush’s administration had contemplated. In late November, Donald Trump tweeted: “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” In January, he told congressional leaders that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally and cost him the popular vote. He didn’t stop there. Trump promised to form a commission, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, to investigate. In a March 22 interview with Time magazine, Trump said, “I think I will be proved right” about the 3 million illegal votes. He elaborated: “When I say that, I mean mostly they register wrong, in other words, for the votes, they register incorrectly, and/or illegally. And they then vote. You have tremendous numbers of people. In fact I’m forming a committee on it.”
Pence has yet to launch his version of what Ashcroft attempted in 2002, and the very fact that the inquiry is not being run out of the Justice Department indicates that it might proceed very differently. But it wouldn’t be a waste of time for the former Indiana governor (who himself was accused of voter suppression in October) to spend some time studying what happened the last time a Republican administration went looking for a national web of illegal activity at the ballot box. If anything, the results of Pence’s commission might be even less spectacular than before. Elections experts say that’s because voter rolls are cleaner now than they were then, voting systems have been updated in many jurisdictions and stricter voter ID laws are in force. Yet, despite skepticism from high-ranking Republicans in Congress, some conservatives who were involved in the original investigation and who are pushing hardest for the new inquiry insist that the failure to prove widespread fraud is not evidence it doesn’t exist, only that the pursuit wasn’t aggressive enough. It’s a fixation that makes voting experts shake their heads.
“This has been done over and over again,” Becker says. “You don’t waste taxpayer resources without some evidence that an investigation is worthwhile. That’s called a fishing expedition.”
One week before Ashcroft’s 2002 speech, the Justice Department sent an email to all 93 U.S. attorneys announcing the Voting Access and Integrity Initiative and urging them to work with local election officials to prosecute voter fraud. David Iglesias didn’t pay much attention to the first note. The lifelong Republican was a respected former Navy judge advocate; he was one of the defense attorneys in the court-martial case that inspired A Few Good Men. He had been the U.S. attorney in New Mexico for a year and had not encountered any credible allegations of election crimes, so he didn’t see a need to push it to the top of his office’s list.
But by the fall of 2004, as George W. Bush campaigned for reelection, the situation on the ground had changed. The Democratic county clerk in Albuquerque said she received about 3,000 voter registration forms that were inaccurate or incomplete. A group of New Mexico Republicans, led by a sheriff who also happened to be chair of the local Bush-Cheney reelection campaign committee, looked at the forms and held a news conference accusing groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now of submitting thousands of questionable forms. ACORN had been the subject of voter-fraud accusations in other states and was a favorite punching bag for conservatives. Rove, speaking to Hannity that fall, accused the group of collecting absentee ballots from Pennsylvania prisoners. “Here were a bunch of workers for a very highly partisan group carrying a bunch of prisoner ballots out of the prison illegally and attempting to vote them,” Rove said on Fox News in November 2004. (No one was able to determine what happened to those ballots, so no one was punished.)
New Mexico Republicans were clamoring for Iglesias to press charges. The examples they cited at the news conference seemed largely underwhelming—a woman who signed two registration forms with slightly different signatures, and a husband who signed his wife’s name on a registration form with her consent. But the sheriff had referred one case to Iglesias that seemed to have merit.
In the summer of 2004, a 13-year-old boy from Albuquerque received a voter registration card in the mail. His father reported it to the sheriff, who traced it to a forged application form. The ACORN worker who allegedly filled out the form had been paid to register people to vote—the more registration cards she collected, the more money she would earn. She had been fired three months earlier, but Republican leaders demanded Iglesias investigate. He didn’t balk. “I was a true believer,” he says now. “I genuinely believed, based on the coverage of the local media, that there were prosecutable cases.”
In September 2004, he convened a bipartisan task force, including the New Mexico secretary of state and the FBI, to investigate election fraud. He held a news conference and announced a toll-free number for people to phone in tips. Over the next year, the task force received more than 100 complaints—none of which were what you would call federal crimes. “Things like stealing yard signs, getting voter registration forms that you didn’t ask for,” Iglesias recalls.
By the fall of 2005, the case of the ACORN worker and the 13-year-old was the only one that appeared to have any promise at all. Iglesias discussed the evidence with the FBI and ran it by the voter fraud expert in the Justice Department’s Washington office. Iglesias knew that to win in federal court, he would have to prove the ACORN worker had intended to influence the outcome of an election. But the evidence indicated she was just doing it for the money. “I knew my ethical obligation was to not file weak cases,” he says. He declined to press charges.
But that was not the end of it. Over the next six months, Iglesias heard rumblings that the local Republican Party had lost confidence in him. Bush won New Mexico in 2004, but Republicans thought his margin of victory would have been larger if Iglesias had prosecuted voter fraud. Allen Weh, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, emailed Rove, Rove’s White House associate Jennings, and others in the administration to complain in August 2005. “David Iglesias has failed miserably in his duty to prosecute voter fraud,” Weh wrote. “To be perfectly candid, he was ‘missing in action’ during the last election, just as he was in the 2002 election cycle. I am advised his term expires, or is renewed, in October. It is respectfully requested that strong consideration be given to replacing him at this point.” But Iglesias kept his job, and he was even invited to speak at the Justice Department’s Voting Integrity Symposium that year.
As New Mexico Republicans complained behind Iglesias’ back, their counterparts in Washington state were busy pressuring U.S. Attorney John McKay to investigate that state’s highly contested 2004 governor’s race. After three recounts, Democrat Christine Gregoire beat Republican Dino Rossi by 129 votes. Newspapers called it the closest gubernatorial race in American history. Rossi sued to have the results overturned, alleging that hundreds of felons had voted illegally and there were mistakes in the way ballots were counted. But the Republicans never discovered which candidate the felons voted for, so Superior Court Judge John Bridges could not determine whether they swayed the outcome of the election. He also found no evidence of voter fraud.
Neither could McKay. “I understood, of course, that with a margin of 129 votes, there are sure to be certain irregularities that will appear,” McKay says in the book Iglesias later wrote, In Justice: Inside the Scandal That Rocked the Bush Administration. “But was there a conspiracy to steal the election? Absolutely not.”
Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., longtime Justice Department lawyers watched the administration’s priorities shift from protecting civil rights to weeding out fraud. Leading the charge was Hans von Spakovsky, who was appointed in 2003 to oversee the voting section of the Civil Rights Division.
Von Spakovsky was a lawyer and popular figure in conservative circles who had long advocated for stricter voting laws. In 1997, he wrote an article for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation outlining ways to kick felons and dead people off voter lists. He thought people who failed to “vote at least once in a presidential cycle” should be purged from a state’s voter rolls unless they informed election officials that they had moved. He also wanted everyone to show a birth certificate or naturalization papers when they registered. Von Spakovsky eventually won a seat on the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections in Georgia, served as chairman of the Fulton County Republican Party, and become a volunteer observer for Bush during the 2000 Florida recount. In 2001, writing as a consultant, he said Congress should outlaw mail-in voter registration and states should require photo IDs at the polls. That year, he applied for a job in the Justice Department and helped draft the Help America Vote Act. The new law, passed in 2002, included a rule von Spakovsky had long pushed for—requiring people who registered by mail to provide some form of identification before they could vote. Democrats and civil rights group argued such ID requirements would make it harder for minorities and low-income people to cast ballots—meaning the bill would achieve the exact opposite of its title. The next year, von Spakovsky was promoted to oversee the DOJ’s voting section.
Attorneys in that section were responsible for protecting voting rights. This meant, among other things, enforcing the National Voter Registration Act (otherwise known as the motor-voter law), reviewing redistricting plans and making sure local election laws didn’t discriminate against minorities. Civil rights attorneys also observed elections, to make sure people were not unfairly turned away from the polls. Von Spakovsky wanted those election observers to report suspected fraud, and was disappointed when they refused. “They wouldn’t even report whatever information they got over to the criminal division,” he says now.
Asked whether he tried to get the department to focus more on voter fraud than it had in the past, von Spakovsky said, “I did, but they didn’t do very much about it.”
Von Spakovsky angered attorneys in the office when he approved a 2003 congressional redistricting plan in Texas, which was unusual because it was not pegged to a new Census count. Republicans had won control of both houses of the Texas state legislature the year before and wanted to use their power to redraw district lines. But some Justice Department attorneys worried the new plan would hurt minority voters. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that one of the new districts diluted Latino voting power, and those lines were redrawn.
Joe Rich, who was head of the voting section when von Spakovsky arrived, clashed frequently with his new boss. After working in the civil rights division for 36 years, he says Bush’s appointees were “the most hostile, political group of people” he had encountered. In 2005, Rich took a voluntary buyout from the department.
That December, Bush appointed von Spakovsky to fill a temporary vacancy on the Federal Elections Commission. But when von Spakovsky was up for a permanent seat in 2007, Rich and five other DOJ attorneys wrote a letter urging the Senate not to approve his appointment. “Mr. von Spakovsky played a major role in the implementation of practices which injected partisan political factors into decision-making on enforcement matters and into the hiring process,” they wrote. “Moreover, he was the point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division’s mandate to protect voting rights.”
The Senate listened, putting von Spakovsky’s nomination on hold for so long that he was never confirmed. He left the commission and joined the conservative Heritage Foundation, where he frequently writes articles defending Trump and railing against the dangers of voter fraud.
Some U.S. Attorneys had better luck finding election crimes to prosecute than others, but they weren’t in the big cities like Los Angeles and New York, where Democrats typically rack up their biggest wins. In Appalachia, local politicians had a long tradition of paying constituents for their votes. In Wisconsin, felons voted before their civil rights had been restored. In Florida and Alaska, undocumented immigrants registered to vote when they received a card in the mail or at the DMV. This wasn’t the widespread identity fraud Republicans decried in news conferences, but it did send people to prison.
The feds convicted 27 people in vote-buying schemes in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. One Democratic county manager paid poor, handicapped and illiterate people to vote for him. He was still in office in 2004 when he was sentenced to just over two years in prison.
Other criminals included a sheriff, city police chief and a Circuit Court clerk in West Virginia. Prosecutors said the clerk, a Democrat, and his associates got precinct captains to pay people $20 to vote for a slate of preferred candidates in a May 2004 primary, with the goal of controlling county government. “This seems to be something that is just in the blood of people in southern West Virginia,” former West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler told the Associated Press in 2005. “They’re always looking for ways to get away with this.”
The criminals weren’t all Democrats, though. In New Hampshire, the New England regional director of the Republican National Committee was sentenced to 10 months in prison for a scheme to jam the phone lines of Democratic phone banks during the 2002 election. Two others pleaded guilty in the scheme, including the former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee.
Ten noncitizens were convicted of voting in southern Florida in elections held between 1998 and 2004. Many argued they didn’t understand or were confused about their ability to vote. One Jamaican native was a legal permanent resident who had applied for citizenship when he voted in the 2000 presidential election, and said he didn’t realize that was illegal.
In Wisconsin, U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic pressed charges against 13 felons who voted illegally in the 2004 general election, during which John Kerry carried the state by roughly 11,400 votes. Biskupic won seven convictions, not nearly enough to sway the results. And what he did find, Biskupic said, was not evidence of widespread fraud. One of the felons showed poll workers his Department of Correction ID card with the word “offender” printed on it, and he was still allowed to vote. His case was dismissed. It wasn’t the only thing to get dismissed.
On Pearl Harbor Day 2006, David Iglesias received a text as he was headed home to Albuquerque from the airport in Baltimore. The message said to call the main Justice Department. “We’ve decided to go another way,” Mike Battle, director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, told him when he called. “We would like your resignation.”
Iglesias was stunned. “What’s going on, Mike?” he asked, in the first of many attempts to find out why he was losing his job. “I don’t know,” Battle responded, according to Iglesias’ book. “All I can tell you, David, is that this came from on high.”
That day in Seattle, McKay got a similarly cryptic call from Battle. Iglesias says they never found out why they were fired. It could’ve been their refusal to prosecute weak voter-fraud cases. Iglesias had also been pressured to speed up a corruption case against a local Democratic politician. Both situations angered New Mexico Republicans, who added it to the list of complaints they sent to Washington about him.
“I believe to this day that the governor’s race was the reason I was fired,” McKay said in In Justice. “It was seen as a stolen election by Republican groups in the state and eventually throughout the nation.”
Five other U.S. attorneys received Pearl Harbor Day phone calls. A congressional inquiry and Inspector General report revealed the White House had approved the firings. New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici called Attorney General Alberto Gonzales three times between September 2005 and April 2006 to complain about Iglesias’ handling of voter fraud and public corruption cases. Weh, the GOP chairman from New Mexico, told reporters that he confronted Rove about Iglesias at a White House holiday party in 2006. “Is anything ever going to happen to that guy?” Weh asked.
“He’s gone,” Rove responded.
Over the next year, the unfolding scandal led to the resignation of Gonzales and Rove. A subsequent Inspector General investigation determined the attorney general firings were “fundamentally flawed” and arbitrary. Despite that embarrassing outcome, the drumbeat of Republican calls to combat voter fraud continued in many states.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach made voter fraud a central issue in his 2011 campaign. “Organizations that promote voter fraud have burrowed into every corner of our country,” his website said. “In Kansas, the illegal registration of alien voters has become pervasive.” Once in office, Kobach successfully pushed for a state law that requires voters to show proof of citizenship when they register.
Just four states required voters to show some form of identification at the polls in 2008. After Republicans took control of many state legislatures in 2010, that number more than doubled. Last fall, nine states required ID to vote. “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” Mike Turzai, the leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, said before the 2012 election. Romney lost Pennsylvania by more than 309,000 votes.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker defended his state’s voter ID law in a 2014 debate, arguing it would prevent fraudulent votes. “It doesn’t matter if there’s one, 100 or 1,000,” he said. “Amongst us, who would be that one person who would like to have our vote canceled out by a vote that was cast illegally?”
In 2012, the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States gave like-minded Republicans reason to cheer. Pew released a report declaring 24 million voter registration records were no longer valid and the nation’s registration systems needed a major upgrade. “Study: 1.8 million dead people still registered to vote,” read a National Public Radio headline when the report was first released. The findings gave ammunition to conservative groups like True the Vote, who were mobilizing volunteers around the country to analyze registration rolls and raise fears about voter fraud.
But Pew was not trying to scare people; it was trying to solve the problem. “There was no indication of fraud,” says David Becker, lead author of the Pew study. “It is a big leap from having an out-of-date record to intentionally attempting to cast a fraudulent ballot.” Along with the study, Pew launched a nonprofit, the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), and several red and blue states immediately signed up to join. The center compares voter registration data to information from DMVs, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Social Security Index, and allows states to share data to verify whether a voter has moved or died.
Much has changed in the five years since the report was released. Thirty-four states now offer online voter registration, and 20 are part of ERIC. Becker says it has helped correct about 5 million records and register 1 million to 2 million more voters. “The states have gone a long way toward correcting that administrative inefficiency in the system,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Pew study slipped into oblivion—until it was resurrected by the Trump campaign. In an October speech in Wisconsin, Trump claimed, “People that have died 10 years ago are still voting.” He went on to cite the Pew report, saying, “More than 1.8 million deceased individuals, right now, are listed as voters.” Of course, the report never said 1.8 million dead people voted, only that they were listed on voter rolls five years ago.
At a news conference in late January, Sean Spicer got both the year and the findings of the Pew report wrong. “I think there’s been studies,” he said. “There’s one that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens.” (The report did not contain any findings about noncitizens.)
The Republican narrative of massive voter fraud persists despite evidence from the party’s own crackdown—what election law expert Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine professor, calls “a whole lot of nothing.” For many conservatives, fears about voting by felons, who they say lean Democratic, and ACORN registration drives have simply been replaced with concerns about undocumented immigrants. (ACORN shut down in 2010 after conservative activist James O’Keefe posed as a pimp and filmed a misleading video of ACORN employees supposedly advising him and a prostitute on how to get a mortgage. O’Keefe later paid a $100,000 settlement to one employee whose name he had smeared.)
Hans von Spakovsky, now head of the Election Law Reform initiative at the Heritage Foundation, is still a cheerleader for more restrictive voting laws. In February, he published a piece titled “Why Trump’s Probe of Voter Fraud is Long Overdue.” Asked whether he would be involved in the new administration, he said, “I have no idea. Nobody’s called me about it.”
But he has plenty of ideas to offer. “Voter fraud, to be able to detect it, you have to work at it,” he says. He thinks prosecutors should contact the chief voting registrar in their districts and ask for lists of people who are not citizens, or are registered in more than one state. And since voter registration lists are used to create jury pools, they should investigate everyone called for federal jury duty who is excused for being a noncitizen. “That’s just a very basic, easy step,” he says.
Becker disagrees. He points out that people could be lying about their citizenship to get out of jury duty, rather than risking deportation to register and vote. He also questions the reliance on registration lists as evidence of people casting ballots. In 2012, Republican Governor Rick Scott of Florida tried to purge undocumented immigrants from the voter rolls. He started with 180,000 names, but when county election supervisors cross-checked the information, they found the list to be filled with errors. Only 85 people were ultimately removed from the rolls.
“Just because someone can fill out a registration form doesn’t meant they get on a [voter] list, doesn’t mean they cast a ballot, doesn’t meant the ballot is counted,” Becker says. “There’s a variety of checks in place … that would easily prevent widespread fraud.”
Studies conducted by academics and secretaries of state have found noncitizen voting to be extremely rare. There are small-scale examples, such as the Texas city councilwoman who was sentenced to five years in prison for registering noncitizens to vote during a 2006 primary. But Lorraine Minnite, a public policy professor at Rutgers, studied the Justice Department’s voter fraud crackdown during the Bush years and found that only 14 noncitizens were convicted of voting between 2002 and 2005.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from making claims to the contrary. He seems to be relying on suspect sources. Five days after the November election, Gregg Phillips, a former Republican fundraiser from Alabama, made his first appearance in the debate. He tweeted: “We have verified more than three million votes cast by non-citizens.”
Phillips sits on the board of True the Vote and had created an app called VoteStand, which allows users to report suspected fraud. He later said his numbers were based on 189 million voting records. But he and his researchers refuse to release their report until they finish checking the data, which he admits may contain errors.
Trump didn’t wait to see the numbers. He tweeted on November 27 about the “millions of people who voted illegally” and reinforced that message when he spoke to congressional leaders two months later.
The lack of data supporting his claims troubles some conservatives, including one who used to decry illegal voting of a different sort. “There is no evidence whatsoever that 3 million to 5 million illegals voted in this election,” Rove said on Fox News in late January.
Yet Trump continues to stand by such claims. In late January, he tweeted that he was eagerly awaiting the results of Phillips’ analysis. “Look forward to seeing final results of VoteStand.” Trump tweeted. “Gregg Phillips and crew say at least 3,000,000 votes were illegal. We must do better!”
In early February, Trump fanned the flames, telling a group of senators he would’ve won in New Hampshire if “thousands” of voters had not been bused in from Massachusetts. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu asked the White House to provide evidence to back up this allegation; none has appeared. But that hasn’t stopped Republican governors, including Sununu, from advocating for more restrictive voting laws in their states.
Pence has yet to publicly name anyone who will be on the voter fraud commission he’s supposed to lead. “Staff is continuing to work to put the framework together for this process,” Pence spokesman Marc Lotter told POLITICO on March 15. “We will let you know when we have additional updates on it.”
If Pence seeks assistance from the Justice Department, he’ll be working with an attorney general who has been accused of voter suppression. In 1985, when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama, Jeff Sessions prosecuted three civil rights activists for voter fraud after they helped scores of black voters fill out absentee ballots. All three activists were acquitted. But there’s a chance Pence will choose to focus on cleaning up the voter rolls, instead of prosecuting voters. In an early February appearance on Fox News, the vice president said Trump is committed to “really looking into the errors and flaws in our voter logs—the possibility of wide-scale voter fraud that’s [taken] place in the country.”
It’s unclear what “possibilities” Pence might find. But if he cares to learn from Ashcroft’s mistakes, he might consult William Welch, the former chief of the public integrity section of the Justice Department’s criminal division. In 2008, Welch testified in front of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the results of Ashcroft’s ballot integrity initiative. The commissioners asked him about noncitizens voting, wondering how big a problem it really was. Welch’s answer made it sound like the Justice Department had learned nothing from six years of criminal investigations.
“I really cannot give you an estimate of either how small or how large it is,” Welch said. “It simply is an unquantifiable figure as far as we’re concerned.”
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