If Donald Trump loses the presidential election on Nov. 8, he will almost certainly claim that it was rigged. We know that because he’s already saying so, and he hasn’t even lost yet. Ever since polls turned decisively against Trump, he and his surrogates have insisted that some cabal involving the media, Hillary Clinton, and black people is fixing the election for the Democrats. Trump’s allegations have reached such a fever pitch that some Republican officials and politicians have refuted his allegations, appearing earnestly worried that he will undermine the legitimacy of our democracy.
It is interesting that Republicans have chosen to draw the line at Trump’s completely unfounded claims. For the past 16 years, the GOP has fervidly stoked Americans’ fears of voter fraud and repeatedly declared that Democrats were stealing elections without any basis in reality. Trump has merely escalated this rhetoric to a dangerous new level. Republicans are, of course, wise to condemn his wild conspiracies. But they cannot claim the moral high ground at this late date when the entire Republican Party had spent so long priming its base to believe every baseless word Trump utters about election fraud.
The modern movement to persuade Americans that Democrats rig elections began during the George W. Bush administration. Following the harrowingly close 2000 election, Republicans realized that the GOP would benefit from laws that limited Democrats’ access to the ballot—stringent voter ID measures, whose burdens fell disproportionately on minorities, a mostly Democratic constituency. But states needed an excuse to pass these laws, so Bush ordered the Justice Department to uncover and prosecute as many instances of voter fraud as it could find. In reality, there were only a handful of bona fide voter fraud cases throughout the country. But Bush notoriously fired United States attorneys who couldn’t find fraudulent voters to prosecute, signaling to Justice Department attorneys that their jobs depended on rooting out nonexistent fraud.
Between 2002 and 2006, the Bush administration’s crackdown led to a grand total of 86 convictions of voter fraud out of about 200 million ballots cast, a rate of 0.00004 percent.* A majority of the convicted voters had simply filled out registration forms inaccurately or misunderstood eligibility rules. Yet Republican politicians and lobbyists effectively repackaged these meager findings as proof that Democrats were corrupting the electoral system and possibly even unlawfully swinging elections. Over the next decade, state legislatures passed a raft of voting restrictions—including voter ID requirements and early voting cuts—along party lines. As a general rule, Republicans supported these measures and declared that they were necessary to prevent fraud, which they said—again, contrary to all available evidence—was pervasive. Democrats opposed them, recognizing that most voting restrictions had the practical effect of disenfranchising minorities, who tend to vote Democratic.
The evidence has long demonstrated that voter fraud almost never happens in America, but it’s hard to prove a negative. While Democrats could point to facts and figures, Republicans could stoke paranoia. These GOP allegations of rampant fraud were always racially tinged and designed to frighten an older, whiter portion of the electorate. Shortly before the 2008 election, John McCain proclaimed that ACORN, a grassroots organizing group, was “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” His campaign surrogates similarly warned of ACORN-coordinated voter fraud designed to swing the election away from McCain. It was no coincidence that ACORN worked mostly in low-income minority communities. (The group was eventually cleared of wrongdoing.)
Over the last decade, Republican lawmakers have made similar claims about voter fraud to justify voting restrictions in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. A few of these states were able to cite a minuscule number of actual voter fraud allegations; others relied on mere speculation. These measures were an especially easy sell to conservative voters during a time many Republicans believed the Trump-sponsored conspiracy that Obama was not a legitimate president.
Consider Ohio, whose Republican secretary of state, Jon A. Husted, has said it is “wrong” and “irresponsible” to question the legitimacy of an election without evidence as Trump has done these past weeks. If that’s so, why has Husted spent years in court urging judges to uphold voting restrictions on the entirely unproved grounds that voter fraud is a problem in Ohio? Just this election cycle, Husted has defended an Ohio law that abolished “Golden Week,” a six-day voting period disproportionately utilized by black voters. He has also defended a crackdown on absentee and early in-person voting, as well as a bizarre measure that forbids poll workers from helping voters who are struggling to properly complete early ballots. Husted’s key justification for these laws? “Preventing voter fraud.” The amount of evidence he put forth to prove that these laws will curb voter fraud? Zero.
Or consider Wisconsin. Speaker of the House and Trump supporter Paul Ryan, who represents Wisconsin’s 1st District, released a statement on Saturday asserting that he “is fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity.” That’s funny, because Ryan himself has raised concerns in the past about “legal votes” being “cancelled out” by fraudulent “illegal votes.” Moreover, the state he represents seems to consider itself the epicenter of unproven voter fraud. As soon as Republicans took over every branch of the Wisconsin state government, they pushed through an omnibus bill that severely curbed voting rights. The law created a strict voter ID requirement, reduced early voting, and restricted college students’ access to the ballot. In striking down parts of the law, a federal judge found that the measure was partly motivated by intentional racial discrimination against black voters. But Wisconsin insisted that the statute was designed to prevent voter fraud, which remains vanishingly rare in the state.
It’s the same story in Texas—whose voter ID law was recently ruled futile and discriminatory—or North Carolina, whose voting restrictions were recently held to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” without preventing fraud. You get the idea: Voter fraud barely exists, and measures purportedly designed to stop it wind up disenfranchising thousands of voters, mostly minorities. Increasingly, federal courts recognize this fact and demand more evidence of real fraud before signing off on mass disenfranchisement.
But the Republican base does not. Even today, it remains an article of faith among conservatives that Democratic Sen. Al Franken stole his 2008 election with illegal votes by felons. This claim was cooked up by Hans von Spakovsky, the Bush administration official who masterminded the voting rights crackdown, and perpetuated by the Washington Examiner’s Byron York, who was last seen skeptically questioning whether Trump really caused Alicia Machado to develop an eating disorder. Von Spakovsky and York’s Franken theory is easily debunked, as George Mason University professor Michael McDonald has done. But it still circulates on right-wing media as proof of runaway Democratic voter fraud. No wonder Trump eagerly seized the “stolen election” narrative when his numbers took a nosedive.
“Trump just poured gasoline on a fire that was already burning,” Berman told me. “For nearly two decades, Republicans have been insisting—without any evidence—that Democrats are stealing elections. The idea has always been to gain an electoral advantage by preventing the fastest growing Democratic demographics from voting.”
Would Berman give any credit for the conflagration to Republicans like Husted, who are now arguing against Trump’s stolen election conspiracy theories?
“These Republicans are criticizing Trump for the ‘rigged election’ talk, sure,” he said, “but they aren’t backing off their own party’s efforts to make it harder to vote. Denouncing Trump’s rhetoric without taking responsibility for your own party’s voter suppression is total BS.”
“One party is trying to ‘rig’ the election,” he said. “But it’s not Democrats. It’s the GOP.”
Correction, Oct. 18, 2016: This article misstated the percentage of illegal votes cast between 2002 and 2006. It is 0.00004 percent, not 0.0000004 percent. (Return.)