In New Hampshire, Trump's now-defunct voter fraud commission made its mark

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Steve Koczela is President of the MassINC Polling Group, which conducts extensive polling in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The presidential commission on voter fraud came to an abrupt end when President Trump dissolved it this week. Its legacy is more than a little ironic. The commission was originally tasked with building confidence in the electoral process, according the executive order that created it. But despite finding no proof of fraud, it undercut the very trust it was supposed to build. The months of spreading evidence-free conspiracy theories about massive voter fraud are still taking their toll and will for a long time as questions about election integrity add fuel to calls for more restrictive voting laws.

 Steve Koczela
This is particularly true in New Hampshire, where allegations of voter fraud received a disproportionate share of attention from the commission and others in the Trump orbit. The New Hampshire State Senate passed HB372 along party lines on Wednesday, clamping down on the imaginary problem of out-of-state voters flooding into the state to tip their closely watched elections. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has said he opposes the bill, so its prospects are unclear.
Republican lawmakers are selling the tighter residency restrictions as an effort to address a lack of trust in the electoral system. "We're trying to fix the belief that your vote counts," said Republican state Sen. Andy Sanborn, of Bedford. Another lawmaker said his constituents "will sleep better tonight because they will feel an out-of-state voter is less apt to vote in New Hampshire. So that gives them confidence in the system."
    But that lack of confidence is at least partly due to the baseless allegations offered by the commission. So a commission, which was created to improve confidence in voting, amplified rumors that undermined confidence, and then lawmakers used that lack of confidence to justify clamping down on voting rights. The entire effort to restore confidence in elections has become a sort of self-licking ice cream cone.
    The proposed law, which requires voters to meet more restrictive residency requirements to vote, would make it harder for some in the state to cast ballots. It would hit college students in particular, many of whom are from out of state but nonetheless have been able to vote in New Hampshire in the past. While it may boost the confidence of some who believed the rumors, those who are disenfranchised will see things differently. It is the second law focusing on voter eligibility in New Hampshire. The first, passed last year, has been the subject of court battles.
    Although the idea of out-of-state voters illegally casting ballots in New Hampshire is not new, it has been given new life and more attention in recent months. The vice-chair of the commission, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, claimed in a Breitbart op-ed there was proof of fraud from unqualified voters, but his evidence was easily dismissed, mostly just counts of same-day registrants and voters using out of state IDs. An analysis posted on Monkey Cage, a Washington Post political science blog, examined the claims thoroughly and found them without merit. New Hampshire Public Radio showed most of the voters Kobach was concerned about were in college towns, where a burst of new voters using out of state IDs could be expected.
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    New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a member of the commission, pushed back on Kobach's op-ed at a public meeting of the panel in Manchester. Many others have questioned the allegations. Former GOP Chair Fergus Cullen went so far as offering a $1,000 reward or evidence of bused-in voters. In Massachusetts, often cited as the source of the "fraudulent" votes, party officials on both sides remain baffled.
    All the same, variations on the claim of massive fraud in the Granite State were offered by former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, White House adviser Stephen Miller, and even President Donald Trump himself, among many others. Even the White House statement about the end of the commission serves to undermine voter confidence, suggesting there is "substantial evidence of voter fraud" and attributing the commission's end to states' refusal to provide voter data.
    All this talk of fraud may be having an effect on voters' views of the process. While majorities in polls see the election process as fair, a sizable minority do not. A Granite State Poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire, found that a third of New Hampshire voters thought voter fraud in the state was a "somewhat serious" or "very serious" problem, including half of Republicans. Gardner himself cited this uneven confidence in the election process as one of the reasons he joined the commission.
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    But the commission was never going to restore confidence in the voting process. It wasn't set up to do that. When the head of the commission and the President himself blow past evidence and experts on their way to conspiracy theories, it's hard to see how the commission's impact could have been other than what it was—a serious detriment to the confidence it was charged with enhancing.
    The end of the commission does not mean that the Trump administration is done with the issue.
    Instead, the investigation will now be taken up by the Department of Homeland Security. That effort, which will likely be conducted out of the public eye, may end up being more consequential. But in New Hampshire, at least, Trump's short-lived voter fraud commission made its mark, both in public opinion and in legislation that could affect future elections.