What should infuriate Americans about the "election integrity" commission President Donald Trump announced this week is not simply that it's another voter fraud sham — an effort to somehow justify the president's absurd claim that millions of people voted illegally last November or perhaps formulate more rules to reduce turnout like voter ID cards or similar Red State-favored barriers. No, what makes the exercise especially insufferable is that the country could use a nonpartisan commission of experts right about now to recommend ways to protect the next U.S. election from interference from hackers and foreign intelligence agencies that are almost certainly emboldened by recent events.
On Tuesday, the National Security Agency's director testified under oath to the Senate Armed Services Committee what most people in the intelligence community were already saying — that Russian hackers attacked French computer systems prior to the May 7 runoff between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron producing an online "dump" of information just hours prior to the polls opening. The effort appeared to be a variation on the cyber attacks launched against the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager.
The interference surely didn't sway the French election. It's not even clear how much harm the Russian hacking did to former Secretary of State Clinton's campaign either. (Although the drip-drip-drip of Wikileaks disclosures and the resulting erosion of public trust in Ms. Clinton was surely as damaging as that other high-profile scandal, the 11th hour reopening of the email investigation announced by recently-fired FBI Director James Comey.) The prospect of further computer-assisted manipulation by Russia or some other foreign government with sufficient resources and computer savvy in the 2018 cycle shouldn't be taken lightly.
Yet the executive order signed by President Trump on Thursday makes absolutely no mention of foreign governments or cybersecurity. What it is quite specific about is "improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting." And Mr. Trump has appointed Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to lead the commission. Both have a demonstrated penchant for voter suppression in their respective states.
In fact, the whole exercise may be predicated on nonsense — specifically on Mr. Trump's wild-eyed claim that there were 3 million to 5 million illegal votes cast last November, all of them for his opponent. No credible election experts believe that — or anything close to that. A recent report by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice scrutinizing 23.5 million votes casts in parts of the country with the highest number of non-citizens found just 30 incidents where someone who is not a U.S. citizen may have cast a ballot. All those cases resulted in further investigation and prosecution. The president would have been better off forming a commission to prevent the more common problem of fatal lightning strikes, as they involve at least 50 percent more Americans (about 50 total) every year.
Stacking a commission with political ideologues isn't going to turn an imaginary problem into a real one. The only thing it's likely to accomplish is give GOP-controlled states more trumped-up ammunition to pass laws that discourage the poor and minorities from participating in elections. Mr. Kobach has been a leading voice in that effort, scaring Kansans into believing there's a serious problem with undocumented immigrants going to the polls and using that fear to win support for one of the nation's strictest voter ID laws.
Is there some point at which the election process can be judged on a nonpartisan and more informed basis? President Trump's blindness to Russian interference in the last election is well established, but what about the rest of the country? Don't Republicans have just as much reason as Democrats to worry that the next wave of Russian hackers will target their candidates, perhaps disclosing private emails, bank records, credit card charges or other sensitive data (with made-up propaganda thrown in for good measure) to manipulate the results?
At the very least, the federal government should be scrambling right now to put up some defenses against foreign governments' cybermeddling, perhaps advising candidates and campaigns on privacy protections or helping states make sure their databases are secure. And that's not even counting the states with voting machines that could be hacked directly or that otherwise lack a paper trail. Mr. Trump's advisory commission isn't the usual Republican sham about fraud, it's worse because it's a distraction that also ignores a serious threat.