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Donald Trump speaks during a May 6, 2016 rally in Eugene.  

State elections officials in North Carolina were surprised earlier this month when the federal Justice Department swooped down with subpoenas ordering the state to turn over millions of voting records by Sept. 25.

The subpoenas, which were issued to the state elections board and to 44 county elections boards in eastern North Carolina, according to a recent story in The New York Times. They directed the officials to hand over the voting records to immigration officials.

It's not clear exactly what Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have in mind with the subpoenas: Prosecutors aren't talking, and neither is anyone at ICE.

But the timing of the subpoenas offers a clue: They were issued a week after federal officials announced that 19 noncitizens in North Carolina had been charged with casting illegal votes in the 2016 election. Those indictments came after an investigation by a new federal task force into documents and benefits fraud in the eastern portion of North Carolina; that region of the state includes the 44 counties served with the subpoenas.

The conclusion is inescapable: Months after President Donald Trump's commission on electoral integrity ran off the rails and disbanded, Trump continues to seek proof that he lost the popular vote in 2016 only because millions of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. Never mind that no evidence has surfaced to support claims that voter fraud of that scale took place anywhere in the United States; Trump apparently is unwilling to let go of what amounts to a delusion.

Surely you remember the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.  Secretary of State Kris Kobach (now the Republican candidate for Kansas governor) was the vice chairman. At the time of its formation last May, the White House said the commission "will study vulnerabilities in voting systems used for federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations, improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations, and fraudulent voting." The commission also was expected to study concerns about voter suppression and other voting irregularities.

But, really, the commission was formed in large part to find some evidence (any evidence) of voter fraud on a scale large enough to tip the popular vote to Clinton. Long story short: That evidence did not emerge. The commission imploded in January. At that time, Kobach said that its work would be transferred to the Department of Homeland Security. ICE, of course, is part of that department.

So it certainly seems that the subpoenas in North Carolina represent a renewed push by the administration to bolster Trump's claim that he lost the popular vote only because of fraud. 

But the numbers suggest that any voter fraud is occurring on a much tinier scale than the president suspects: North Carolina's election board audited the 2016 election and reported last year that it had found 41 suspected cases of noncitizens casting votes. For the sake of argument, let's multiply that number by 50 states: It adds up to 2,050 votes. 

Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2 million votes.

But here's the weird thing about this: Trump won the election where it matters, in the Electoral College. His obsessing over the popular vote is the kind of thing you would expect from a sore loser. But Trump won.

And here's the missed opportunity in all of this: You'll remember that the original mandate of the president's electoral commission included the charge to study "vulnerabilities in voting systems used for federal elections." That's work that could be potentially vital, especially as we learn more about the foreign governments and hackers that have targeted America's voting systems — voting systems that need real work to be hardened against those attacks.   

As the administration continues to chase reports of low-level voter fraud, it's lost sight of the larger threats looming over the integrity of our elections. (mm)

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Managing Editor