Beyond fact checking the Trump administration’s baseless claims of massive, organized voter fraud, voting rights advocates have turned to the question of why White House officials have so persistently advanced the voter fraud fiction.
President Trump and his allies’ unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud are “intended to create a narrative that inspires fear in people, that attempts to delegitimize our elections and voting process, and I believe will be a harbinger of possible legislative actions in the days to come,” said Denise Lieberman, senior attorney and co-director of the Power and Democracy program at the Advancement Project.
Lieberman told Rewire in an interview Wednesday that the charges of illegal voting levied by the Trump administration have no basis in reality, echoing voting rights advocates, fact checkers, and even Republican leadership.
“This issue has been studied and put to bed. We know that there is no in-person voter fraud,” Lieberman said. “This is a distraction that is intended to create a narrative to support efforts on the federal level and in states that could make voting harder, particularly for voters of color.”
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Trump used his presidential campaign as a platform to disseminate falsehoods about voter fraud as justification to push voter restrictions such as photo identification laws—a favorite tactic of GOP lawmakers determined to maintain majorities on the state level. Though Trump had no evidence to support his claims, that didn’t stop Republicans from touting them time and again.
“There is no evidence of massive voter fraud. Absolutely not,” Jonathan Brater, democracy program counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Rewire by phone. “The notion that millions of people voted illegally and nobody noticed is preposterous on its face.”
Allegra Chapman, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, said in an interview that not only has there “been no evidence of widespread fraud in any state,” but “the reason for this too is that states have really strong laws on the books that would deter anyone from doing this.”
Trump has alleged without evidence that in New Hampshire, a state with same-day voter registration, thousands of voters were bused in to fraudulently cast ballots in 2016. Security measures are in place to safeguard against potential fraud in New Hampshire and Republican officials in the state say there is simply no evidence of widespread fraud.
Though the extent to which Trump and his allies have refused to embrace the evidence when it comes to election integrity may seem new, these claims are hardly unprecedented. Lieberman noted that the narrative could be traced to the post-Civil War era when “efforts to impinge criminality and lack of valid citizenships on African Americans were used to justify a myriad of restrictions that many states put ultimately into their constitutions—like literacy tests and poll taxes and good character clauses, which are the precursors to felony disenfranchisement laws today.”
More recently, falsehoods about voter integrity have been pushed by Republicans to justify efforts to restrict access to the ballot box. Members of the GOP have leveraged misinformation about election integrity to staggering effect.
“We had a wave of restricting voting laws that were passed after 2010 and the purported basis for many of these laws was to go after widespread voter fraud—which is an entirely fictional claim,” Brater said. “The result was that in 2016 voters in 14 states faced new restrictions for the first time in a president election. The laws that were passed had a disproportionate impact on the poor, the elderly, students, people of color, and other demographics.”
Brater noted that this isn’t the first time a GOP administration has pursued unsupported allegations of voter fraud. “A decade ago, some top partisan officials used the Justice Department under George W. Bush to search for [and] prosecute baseless claims of voter fraud in order to advance what was a partisan agenda,” he said. “That culminated in a major scandal in which the attorney general and others resigned.”
Most of the about 120 people charged with voter fraud in the five-year Bush administration investigation seem “to have mistakenly filled out registration forms or misunderstood eligibility rules, a review of court records and interviews with prosecutors and defense lawyers show,” the New York Times reported. Karl Rove, Bush’s top political adviser, harped on the supposed prevalence of voter fraud and its danger to electoral legitimacy, as he has throughout his career in Republican politics.
Despite having been debunked, the specter of voter fraud is unlikely to disappear under the Trump administration. The president announced in January that Vice President Mike Pence will lead a federal probe into voter fraud allegations. Brater cautioned that Pence leading the probe “does raise concerns because when he was governor of Indiana, there was a high-profile investigation of a voter registration organization.”
One week before the state’s voter registration deadline, Indiana state police raided the offices of the Indiana Voter Registration Project after election officials alerted them about issues with applications. A hold was put on the applications collected by the group, most of which were from Black voters.
“We still don’t have the final results of that investigation, but Vice President Pence, when it was discovered, was criticized for using state resources to conduct a partisan investigation,” Brater said.
If conducted correctly, Brater said, the Trump administration’s investigation is unlikely to turn up anything new. “What we need to be wary of is the idea that this could somehow devolve into a partisan witch hunt, or used to justify sweeping voting restrictions,” he said.
Lieberman explained that Trump’s “claims are touting a narrative that people are illegally voting, in particular people who are not American citizens, and even though there is absolutely [no] truth or validity to these claims, it is inspiring a process of othering, of continuing to make voters of color, in particular, immigrants, to tout them as invalid participants in society.”
Based on that rhetoric, Lieberman said she expects “that we will see, we’re already starting to see on the state levels in places like Texas and Virginia, … [bills] that would require documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote.”
According to Project Vote, a nonpartisan organization working to improve voter registration, proof of citizenship restrictions “excludes legitimate voters who do not have documentary proof of citizenship, such as elderly people, students living away from home, or married people who adopt the surname of their spouses.” The policies “essentially quash community-based voter registration drives, which are responsible for reaching large numbers of potential voters at markets, churches, and other public places where one is unlikely to carry birth certificates and passports.”
Lieberman said the country could see such efforts take hold not only on the state level, but also federally.
“I believe … this sort of climate of fear and suspicion of voters of color is going to create a platform that will allow greater suspicion of voters of color, specifically groups that work to register voters of color to vote,” she said. Overall, “the practical effect of all this is going to be to promote partisan manipulation of voting processes. At the end of the day it’s just going to make it harder for people to vote. And historically we know that these sorts of measures disproportionately make it harder for voters of color to participate.”
This rhetoric is consistent with the tenor of the Trump administration. “This is why we see this narrative continuing despite all evidence to the contrary,” Lieberman said. “It’s not unlike Trump’s previous allegations regarding Barack Obama’s birth status. Even after he was completely debunked, even after President Obama produced the birth certificate, he continued on because it was a way to capture a narrative that delegitimizes that president.”
“That is exactly what is happening here, that claims of voter fraud are being used to delegitimize particularly voters of color and it’s part of a broader narrative that we’re seeing with the immigration ban, with other attacks particularly on immigrants, on women, on LGBT citizens, that impugns delegitimacy into their existence,” she continued. “That suggests that there’s criminality associated with these groups, and that is being used to further justify not just attacks on access to the ballot, but [is] being used to justify attacks across the board.”
Chapman said that while “you need a crystal ball to figure out what to expect from the Trump administration,” that “we just have to take it one day at a time.”
“I think it’s just going to be on voting rights advocates to play a defensive game at least when it comes to ensuring that these photo ID levels at the state level or wherever do not get passed,” she said.
Brater noted that changes to election processes need to be made: “What we should be doing is actually upgrading our voting system to make it easier to vote and exercise the most fundamental right in a democracy,” he said. “What we should be looking at is automatic voter registration, which six states have already passed in recent years. That actually helps election integrity much more than any of these other policies that have been mentioned by the Trump administration and their allies.”
Lieberman, however, warned that “it’s critical to not legitimize or even give validity to these claims.” She said “there is no gain in taking on this debate like it’s a legitimate one, rather, we need to remain ever vigilant to the underlying motivations behind these claims and continue to stand up and fight for our rights to vote, for the rights of people of color and immigrants and all citizens to be treated fairly and equally in their communities.”
“And that means fighting back against these narratives and these sound bites, but also organizing in the streets and taking illegal practices to court,” Lieberman said.