This commentary is part of Disappearing Democracy, a series analyzing voting rights and voter suppression in America.
In 1977, the Republican Party seemingly faced an existential crisis. Jimmy Carter, the folksy Georgia Democrat elected president in the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s disastrous, scandal-plagued tenure in the West Wing, had just proposed a landmark pro-democracy bill to create a national system of same-day voter registration. The laws would have swept aside a patchwork quilt of complicated state regimes that together prevented millions of people from actually participating in democracy.
Conservatives feared an unending series of electoral wipeouts if it were to pass. One conservative newspaper, predicting that turnout would spike among “blacks and other traditionally Democratic voter groups,” called the proposal “EUTHANASIA FOR THE GOP.”
As detailed by historian Rick Perlstein, Republicans mobilized against it by arguing that nothing less than the future of free and fair elections was at stake. Two years earlier, when Democrats had sought to expand voter registration by mail, Ronald Reagan had loudly decried the “potential for cheating.” (“Yes, it takes a little work to be a voter,” he said. “That’s a small price to pay for freedom.”) Seizing this mantle, the Heritage Foundation warned that Carter’s proposal could enable some eight million undocumented people to vote illegally, and a Republican National Committee resolution asserted that it would “endanger the integrity of the franchise and open American elections to serious threat of fraud.” Republican opposition in Washington stopped the legislation in its tracks; three years later, Reagan won the GOP nomination for president and defeated Carter in a landslide.
Today, the circumstances have changed, but the rhetoric has not. As the country prepares to choose a president in the middle of a deadly pandemic, President Trump has predicted that universal mail-in voting will be “a disaster the likes of which our country has never seen.” In July, he floated the idea of delaying the contest to a later date, ostensibly to prevent “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history” from taking place.
Occasionally, though, Trump has let slip the true motivation for this hyperventilating opposition to mail-in voting: Not only would it lead to “MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE,” he wrote in May—it would mean “THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY,” too.
The idea of combating voter fraud has powerful rhetorical appeal because it sounds at once noble and intuitive: Who, after all, could possibly be against it? Yet the premise—that intervention is required to protect democracy from near-constant attacks by devious imposters seeking to usher Democrats into power—does not stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Out of more than a billion votes cast between 2000 and 2014, one study found 31 credible fraud allegations, and its author cautioned that some would most likely prove innocuous upon investigation. Despite Trump’s claims that “millions” of people voted illegally in 2016, his own lawyers have conceded in court filings that “all available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.”
At times, it can seem as if experts are competing to see who can convey the illusory nature of this “problem” more emphatically. One analysis framed the fraud rate over 20 years of universal mail-in voting in Oregon—0.000004 percent—as about one-fifth of your odds of getting struck by lightning. The authors of a study of the 2012 election found “no evidence of systematic voter impersonation,” noting that the percentage of respondents who said they had committed voter fraud was about the same as those who said they had been abducted by space aliens.
Nevertheless, voter fraud is among the most persistent tropes in U.S. politics because it is a useful falsehood. The specter of widespread corruption is reliably invoked and exaggerated by politicians who feel their influence eroding and are desperately attempting to retain it. At a moment when Trump occasionally faces double-digit polling deficits, he, too, is deploying an insidious political strategy that is not actually about preventing fraud, and is instead about denying members of marginalized communities, and particularly Black people, the right to vote.
Performative hand-wringing over the integrity of American democracy is a ritual older than American democracy itself. The Constitution’s framers, a gaggle of wealthy white men now lionized by history books as visionary titans of egalitarianism, worried that people who did not own property, if granted the privilege of voting, would be incapable of exercising independent thought when casting a ballot—or perhaps just sell their ballots to the highest bidder.
“Very few men, who have no property, have any judgment of their own,” John Adams, who would go on to become the second U.S. president, wrote in 1776. “They talk and vote as they are directed by some man of property, who has attached their minds to his interest.” Altering the qualifications would lead to absurd results, he warned: Poor people, young people, and perhaps even women might feel entitled to “demand an equal voice with any other.” James Madison, the eventual fourth president, argued that extending the franchise to propertyless men would transform them into “tools of opulence and ambition,” and that it was thus in everyone’s best interests to restrict the franchise accordingly.
Adams and company were motivated by more than an apolitical fondness for independent thought, however. As the country expanded westward, they understood that less-wealthy Americans would soon outnumber the landed gentry. In Maryland, leaders of the struggling Federalist Party transformed into some of the country’s earliest voter fraud vigilantes, Allan J. Lichtman writes in his book “The Embattled Vote In America.” They asserted, without evidence, that expanding voting rights would inexorably lead to corruption, and pushed to require voters to display proof of eligibility when casting a ballot—a rudimentary version of voter ID laws that would proliferate some 200 years later.
Tactics like these caught on rapidly among politicians victimized by demographic change. New Jersey initially allowed women, free Black people, and non-citizens to vote, but losers of elections were quick to blame their misfortunes on those groups’ involvement, Lichtman says. In 1802, a petition indignantly contended that “Negroes,” “actual slaves,” “aliens,” and “married women” had cast illicit ballots to swing a hard-fought contest. Several years later, lawmakers bowed to public pressure and restricted voting rights to white landowning men, citing an obligation to preserve the “safety, quiet, good order and dignity of the state.”
New Jersey was hardly the only place where upper-crust consternation over shifting power dynamics correlated with insinuations about corruption. Skeptics of allowing immigrants to vote warned that it would dilute American values and stunt the democratic process; opponents of Black suffrage before the Civil War asserted that Black people were unprepared for that responsibility; opponents of women’s suffrage claimed that crafty husbands would hijack their helpless wives’ ballots. The setting varied, but the basic plot was the same: Even modest expansions of suffrage could not survive results that powerful people did not like.
The 15th Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, was supposed to end racial discrimination in voting, opening up civic participation and elected office to millions of people who had been enslaved just a few years earlier. But Congress declined to adopt language that would have prohibited things like literacy tests and poll taxes, which functionally stripped Black and poor people of the nominal right to vote. Southern states took full advantage of this loophole, and Jim Crow supporters stood ready to play the corruption card in its defense: As the Voting Rights Act of 1965 inched closer to passage, Lichtman notes, Senator John Tower of Texas charged that banning poll taxes would allow “unscrupulous political bosses” to commandeer votes, thwarting the purported purpose of “curing voter fraud.”
One of Tower’s Senate colleagues from Louisiana, avowed segregationist Allen Ellender, was a bit less tactful in explaining his opposition. “The bill is tailor-made to Martin Luther King’s demand for Negro control of the political institutions of the South,” he said. “Only through such a nefarious piece of legislation could incompetents gain control of the political processes.”
Although competition is fierce, no faction in American history has weaponized the notion of voter fraud as consistently or successfully as the modern Republican Party. Over the last several decades, GOP politicians and right-wing voices have doggedly pushed this narrative in support of enacting policies like voter ID, voter roll purges, and “ballot security” programs.
The precise nature of the fraud they describe—the impersonation of voters at the polling place, or the casting of ballots in the names of dead or nonexistent people—is somewhat different from the vote-buying and ballot-box-stuffing horror stories of bygone eras. But Republicans’ proffered solution—the systematic disenfranchisement of nonwhite and lower-income people who tend to support Democrats—fits neatly into the long political struggle over who is and who isn’t deemed worthy of casting a vote.
Adherence to this conspiracy theory is deeply embedded in the conservative mindset. In her book “One Person, No Vote,” historian Carol Anderson documents how in 2000, when a blizzard of administrative errors and voter purges resulted in long lines to vote in majority-Black areas of St. Louis, Republicans argued that efforts to keep polling places open a few hours longer were part of an elaborate plot to “create bedlam so that election fraud could be perpetrated.” Debating a Georgia voter ID law in 2005, state lawmaker Sue Burmeister casually opined that if Black people “are not paid to vote, they don’t go to the polls.” In 2010, investigators recorded a handful Alabama state senators privately complaining that if a gambling measure were to appear on the ballot, “every Black, every illiterate” would be “bused on HUD financed buses” to support it.
“There’s only one class of people who are going to be discouraged from voting,” said Virginia state Senator Mark Obenshain in 2014, speaking in support of his state’s strict voter ID proposal. “That’s fraudulent voters.”
Republican efforts to prove their case invariably unravel in spectacular fashion. Former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, perhaps the GOP’s most decorated crusader in this war against no one, once triumphantly presented the case of Alfred Brewer, who voted in 2010 despite dying 14 years earlier, as proof of his thesis. It turns out that the Alfred Brewer who voted was Alfred Brewer Jr., the very much alive namesake of his deceased father. Kobach, undeterred, was appointed by Trump in 2017 to lead a presidential commission on voter fraud. It quietly disbanded the following year after finding nothing of note.
Mail-in and absentee voting, in theory, might seem more susceptible to fraud: After all, dropping a ballot in the mailbox means there is no poll worker to look at an ID, match a name to a face, nod somberly, and wave a would-be voter into the booth. Perhaps the best-known episode of bona fide election fraud in recent history was perpetrated by a consultant who harvested blank absentee ballots and marked them for the North Carolina congressional candidate who employed him. Officials uncovered this hamfisted scheme after discovering, among other things, that the consultant’s stepdaughter had signed on as a “witness” to 42 separate ballots. (Also, the offender was a Republican, which might have something to do with Trump’s conspicuous failure to weave this seemingly salient piece of evidence into his argument.)
Setting aside small-time hustles like this one, however, the data from states that have adopted universal vote-by-mail tells a different story. A Brookings Institute analysis of some 50 million votes in those states found a total of 29 instances of attempted mail-in ballot fraud. Examining data from the 2016 and 2018 general elections in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, the Washington Post found that state officials flagged 0.0025 percent of 14.6 million ballots cast as possibly illegitimate, and emphasized that it isn’t clear how many, if any, led to criminal charges. If mysterious forces of evil intend to rig the 2020 election, as Trump has claimed, mail-in ballot fraud would appear to be a suboptimal strategy for achieving that result.
The voter fraud myth won’t go away, however, because it is the product of a time-honored pair of American traditions: insisting that hordes of marginalized people are on the verge of stealing power, and then asserting a patriotic duty to disenfranchise them to prevent such a disastrous outcome. Banging the voter fraud drum doubles as a savvy tactic in the ongoing war of attrition between the parties, too. In effect, the GOP is always insisting that there are invisible monsters lurking under democracy’s bed, and Democrats are forced to constantly spend time, energy, and political capital to reassure people that there are not.
This year, Republicans aren’t limiting themselves to their usual menu of democracy-warping tactics. Trump has escalated the party’s longstanding vendetta against the U.S. Postal Service during the coronavirus crisis, installing a new postmaster general, Republican megadonor Louis DeJoy, who promptly began dismantling mail-sorting machines and removing dropboxes at a moment when millions of ballots will soon flow through them. (He has since pledged to reverse some of these policy changes until after the election; given this administration’s track record of doing what it promises, I am, to put it delicately, skeptical.) As the Trump administration casts doubt on the integrity of vote-by-mail elections, it is also making it substantially more difficult for people to actually participate in them.
The COVID-19 pandemic, in other words, has created the perfect set of conditions for people to believe a falsehood that centuries of bad-faith rhetoric has primed them to accept. Whether Republicans actually believe this racist lie or are merely content to parrot it is immaterial to the poisonous culture it fosters—one in which the specter of widespread voter fraud is still taken seriously. Trump and his ilk understand the secret that politicians, fearful of losing their grip on power, have long cruelly exploited: Even the silliest lies can feel real if you make them sound scary enough.
Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.