We Can’t Go Back to the Bad Old Days

We Can't Go Back to the Bad Old Days

President Trump's 'voter fraud' commission is making deeply troubling requests for personal information about voters.

Voter Fraud Commission Recalls Intimidation Tactics of the Civil Rights Era

Editor’s note: Guest blogger and Common Cause activist Dorothy Patton is a Virginia attorney.

In 1956, my grandfather, W.C. Patton, refused to disclose to the state of Alabama the membership rolls of the organization that he led, the state chapter of the NAACP.  He knew that such disclosure would have been a virtual death sentence for the members.  In those days, terroristic violence to the lives and property of people like Patton, who dared to register American citizens to vote, earned Birmingham the nickname “Bombingham.”  After much legal maneuvering, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1958 that Alabama’s collection of the NAACP’s membership rolls would have a chilling effect on the lawful and peaceable assembly of American citizens and was unconstitutional.

As the granddaughter of W.C. Patton and as an American, I am deeply troubled by the current demands of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which are eerily similar to the demands of Alabama in 1956.  Then, as today, demands that are innocuous on their faces are thinly veiled excuses to collect personal information unlawfully, intimidate citizens, and threaten our democracy.  

Even if we accept the premise that voter fraud is rampant, which experts spanning the political spectrum reject, the commission’s membership and methods are tainted.  The commission’s partisan bias and preordained conclusions became clear when one member complained that including mainstream Republicans would make the commission an “abject failure.”  The actions of the commission’s vice chair, Kris Kobach, including denouncing the “Hispanization” of the United States and developing a voter registration “crosscheck” program that has been used to remove lawful voters from voter registration rolls, should sound alarm bells. 

In addition, the commission’s broad collection of personal information about voters, including names, addresses, and political party affiliations, violates the Privacy Act of 1974. That law prohibits the federal government from keeping records on Americans’ exercise of First Amendment rights unless expressly authorized by statute.  It’s no surprise that this provision has its roots in NAACP v. Alabama.  And though Congress has expressly authorized some government agencies to collect records of speech-related activities — e.g., Federal Election Commission collection of campaign finance data — Congress has not authorized the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to collect and maintain personal information.

Just as citizens had a constitutionally protected right to assemble peaceably in 1956, they can join political parties in 2017 without the federal government keeping tabs on their associations.  Neither this principle nor the Constitution has changed.

In 1958, Americans were assured that they could peaceably assemble without the shadow of government officials and their terrorist partners looming behind them and threatening their lives and property.  Today, the president’s commission seems bent on chipping away at hard-won and long-settled foundations of our democracy.  While today’s threats may be less violent than those in 1956 (although the recent riot in Charlottesville, VA, looked like a page out of 1950s history), they are still dangerous.  We must question efforts to collect personal information unlawfully and to make it harder for citizens to register and vote.  We must hold leaders accountable when people are unlawfully denied their quintessential rights as citizens to assemble peaceably and to vote.  We must remain vigilant, lest our country be taken back to the bad old days.