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Donald Trump’s Talk of Rigged Elections Isn’t Just Wrong — It’s Dangerous

How the Republican candidate represents a threat to the country’s civic religion.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Sarah Rice/Getty Images)

On January 7th, 2001, Americans were treated to a front-row view of democracy at its finest. With the tumult of the rancorous 2000 presidential election finally resolved, a joint session of Congress met in Washington to officially certify the results of the Electoral College. There, legislators were greeted with a peaceful transition of power: It was Al Gore himself who gaveled down objections from fellow Democrats in order to hand power to his political rival, George W. Bush.

If that day in 2001 was an embodiment of democratic principles in the tradition of the peaceful “Revolution of 1800” that gave Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans control of the United States government after a bitterly contested election, then Donald Trump’s electoral blitzkrieg over the past few weeks is the total opposite. Facing a collapse in the polls, the flight of crucial support among educated white women, and the desertion of Republican political leaders — all in the aftermath of the publication of a 2005 video where he essentially boasts about sexual assault — the Republican candidate has reverted to his classic strategy of incendiary, trollish campaigning designed to boost his free media and rally his base in the weeks before the election. “The shackles have been taken off me,” Trump tweeted last week. “ I can now fight for America the way I want to.” In this case, that means committing election suicide: With his prospects of winning the White House narrowing, the Trump campaign is on a mission to delegitimize the Republican Party and, should it come to it, the Hillary Clinton presidency.

But Trump’s gloves-off campaign sprint has come with (even more) dangerous rhetoric. “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday, echoing claims he’s made in the past. And, as The Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum observed, while Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence attempted to downplay his running mates allegations (“[We] will absolutely accept the result of the election,” he said on Sunday’s Meet the Press), Trump’s line of argument uses two of his favorite points of attack: the liberal media bias and the idea of voter fraud. It’s “so important that you watch other communities, because we don’t want this election stolen from us,” Trump told devotees last week in Pennsylvania. “We do not want this election stolen.”

This is a demonstrably statistical falsehood, and recent data rounded up by the Brennan Center for Justice proves as much. The Center’s 2007 study on contemporary allegations of widespread voter fraud found a 0.0003 percent rate of double voting in Missouri in 2000 and 2002 (out of “hundreds” of alleged cases), a 0.0002 percent rate in New Jersey in 2004 (out of 4,397 alleged cases), and a 0.000009 percent rate in New York in 2002 and 2004 (out of “between 400 and 1000 alleged cases”). Reports of deceased voters in multiple states between 2002 and 2005 revealed similarly tiny results, according to the same study. A comprehensive 2014 analysis by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt found just 31 “possible” instances of voter fraud amid more than one billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014; twostudies released by Arizona State University from 2012 and 2016 reported similarly low rates. Voter fraud is not actually a significant problem—and the courts agree too.

By conjuring the specter of false fraud, Trump is all but encouraging real-life electoral shenanigans.

Despite this, Trump is tapping into pre-existing anxieties over voter fraud among his backers. Some 69 percent of Trump supporters believe voter fraud occurs very or somewhat often, according to a September Washington Post/ABC poll. Almost half of Trump supporters are “not confident” their ballots will be accurately counted, compared to only 18 percent of Clinton supporters surveyed. (The Post notes that this skepticism vacillates among the parties based on the election — some 44 percent of John Kerry’s supporters were worried about voter fraud in the 2004 election). To be clear, these suspicions are fundamentally unfounded.

Voter ID laws, put forward by Republican lawmakers to prevent this invisible scourge at the ballot box and enacted in different forms in 36 states as of March, tend to disenfranchise people more than protect them. After all, some 11 percent of eligible voters (around 21 million people) don’t have government-issued photo identification, and this gap has an outsized impact on minorities: An analysis from the University of California–San Diego found that photo ID laws “have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans,” which “skew democracy in favor of whites and those on the political right.”

In this sense, it’s absolutely unsurprising that Trump warned his followers about “other communities” stealing the election; it’s a dog whistle for his voters to intimidate others on Election Day, to engage in, as two supporters told the Boston Globe, “racial profiling.” Or consider former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s suggestion that Democrats engage in voter fraud to “control the inner-cities.” “Dead people generally vote for Democrats instead of Republicans,” Giuliani told CNN on Sunday morning. “If you want me to tell you that I think the elections of Philadelphia and Chicago are going to be fair, I would have to be a moron to say that.” These poll-level worries feed directly into the Trump-fed fever dream of a cabal of “global elites” who are plotting “the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers,” as Trump said Thursday.

By conjuring the specter of false fraud, Trump is all but encouraging real-life electoral shenanigans. This is part of an explicit strategy, several of his advisers told Yahoo News on Friday: “Principally, doing that is about suppression of vote. Like, you know, ‘I’m not going to get out of bed. I’m not going to go vote for her,’” the source said. “It’s about the suppression of votes, just to get them to stay home. If we can pick up some votes along the way, that’s fantastic, but it’s really about the suppression of votes.” Disenfranchisement has a long tradition in American electoral politics, but it’s rare to see it addressed so baldly by political operatives.

While fears over vote theft should logically result in less participation in the democratic process — why vote if it doesn’t matter? — an analysis of data from the the 2006 and 2007 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies surveys published in a 2008 issue of the Harvard Law Review shows that no such correlation exists. In fact, it’s those voters who don’t know much about voter fraud who show the lowest participation rates; as the authors observe, “it is also possible that fear of fraud will mobilize voters to turn out in order to counteract it,” despite the suggestion (and hope, for some Trump campaign officials) that the shadow of extreme corruption will simply induce voters to completely disengage.

Even so, it’s the demographic divide in voter fraud that underscores why the potential damage of Trump’s warnings extend far beyond Election Day. He isn’t just attempting to bolster his attacks on “Crooked Hillary;” he’s trying to delegitimize the entire political system that makes America’s “peaceful revolutions” possible.

For his faithful base, Trump’s escalating rhetoric could wear away at the legitimacy of both the American electoral system and his political opponents in both parties. As the Associated Press’ Julie Pace observes, it’s not just that Clinton would enter the White House as one of the politically shakiest chief executives in modern American history; Republican leaders “will have to reckon with how much credence they give to claims the election was rigged and how closely they can work with a president whom at least some GOP backers will likely view as illegitimate.”

On that unusual day in 2001, Gore closed Congress’ joint session with an appropriately patriotic maxim: ‘’May God bless our new president and new vice president, and may God bless the United States of America.” Given the historically negative face of the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s unlikely the vox populi will return to a status quo of (at least temporary) unity and solidarity.