"The evidence indicates," he said, "that voter fraud is an exponentially greater threat than hacking of election equipment."
What? Attempts to hack into America's election systems are well-documented. The fact that they haven't broadly succeeded, as far as we know, doesn't mean they aren't an imminent threat.
"It’s disappointing to see this discredited fiction repeated by an election official," said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center in New York.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, testifying at the same hearing, was clear. "Election security in general, and cybersecurity in particular, is the most significant threat to the integrity of our election system," he said. He's right.
There are cases of confirmed voter fraud, to be sure. Ashcroft referred to such an incident in his testimony: a local case where two fraudulent ballots were cast in a legislative contest decided by a single vote.
What Ashcroft did not say, at least in his prepared testimony, is that voter fraud is extraordinarily rare. A successful cyber-intrusion into election systems, on the other hand, could affect tens of thousands of votes across dozens of states — an exponentially more dangerous threat to democracy, to coin a phrase, than voter fraud.
Russia tried to hack voter systems in 21 states in 2016, the committee chaired by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt was told Wednesday. Systems in two states were breached. Surely Ashcroft sees the danger from that kind of sophisticated ballot interference as a bigger problem than rare double-voting.
Congress thinks so. The recent federal catch-all spending bill set aside $380 million for state-based election security this year.
But Ashcroft's claims about voter fraud are concerning in another context.
As we've seen repeatedly in Kansas, politicians use the threat of largely nonexistent voter fraud to justify intrusions into registration and ballot systems. Voter photo ID laws, documentary proof of citizenship requirements, limited advance voting and other restrictions are typically imposed in response to the alleged threat of fraud.
Americans, though, know the real truth: The rules are really meant to depress turnout by making it harder to vote.
That's why a federal judge declared the Kansas proof-of-citizenship law unconstitutional. It's also why the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing massive purges of voter rolls is so dangerous: It allows local and state authorities to disenfranchise voters with only the slimmest evidence they're ineligible to cast ballots.
The biggest threat to democracy isn't voter fraud or the hacking of election systems. It's the repeated, systemic attempts to unfairly disqualify or discourage voters — and voting — for perceived partisan advantage.
We invite Secretary Ashcroft to take a leadership role in resisting the ongoing manipulation of American voting rights for political purposes. His testimony in Washington wasn't a good start.