Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Donald Trump is playing on well-worn Republican suspicions that data just don’t bear out. His suggestions are racist and dangerous, say experts.
Texas has been trying to make its voter photo-ID law happen since 2011, despite the fact that the U.S. Justice Department and federal courts have found on numerous occasions that it would burden black and Latino voters. Most recently, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck the law down in a July ruling that the law may have even been passed with the express purpose of racial discrimination. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Monday that the state would appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court; good luck with that with the high court down a justice.
But much like in North Carolina and Wisconsin, the reason Texas insists on having a photo voter-ID law is that it swears that zombie relatives, “illegal aliens,” and cloned voters are rigging elections. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate known for plushly accommodating endless conspiracy theories, is the latest to indulge the voter-fraud fantasy. He’s lately been baselessly fomenting predictions of election-rigging as the only explanation for how he could lose in a battleground state like Pennsylvania.
As he told an audience recently in Ohio:
Trump: "You’ve gotta get everybody to go out & watch... when I say watch, you know what I’m talking about, right?" pic.twitter.com/c1iiAJ1XGl— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) August 22, 2016
What he’s talking about watching for are people impersonating other people in order to vote more than once, or people voting “15 times,” or similar unfounded shenanigans. It’s the kind of accusation that Republicans have been making for at least the past three election cycles, and it seems to be one of the few GOP talking points that Trump has embraced comfortably. The racial dogwhistle underlying these charges is that black and Latino voters in cities are most prone to this kind of cheating.
"Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don't come in and vote five times," Trump said recently in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers pushed through a voter photo-ID law in 2012 on the trumped-up grounds that it would fight voter fraud. But Pennsylvania courts weren’t buying it, and overturned the law for good. Defenders of the photo voter-ID law were unable to submit one instance of voter fraud as evidence during the court trial.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump from continuing to push the voter-fraud meme in 2016—a push that’s gone from “laughable to … dangerous,” as the University of California, Irvine, election law expert Richard L. Hasen told the The New York Times.
It’s dangerous because Trump is now strongly suggesting that people take election-law matters into their own hands by calling for a red-shirted army of vigilante poll watchers to fall into formation. There is a clear history of racist bullying that comes with this kind of desperado poll-monitoring, and here’s what that’s already starting to look like:
All of this is predicated on the idea that voter fraud is rampant, which is flat wrong. George W. Bush wanted the final word on voter fraud, and so he sicced his then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on it. Unsurprisingly, they found nothing. What the investigation did yield, however, was the unnecessary firings of several Democrat U.S. Attorneys for partisan reasons. And yet Gonzales today supports Trump’s racism.
More recently, Arizona State University’s News 21 investigative news team reviewed thousands of voter-fraud claims in Arizona, Ohio, Georgia, Texas and Kansas, going back to 2012. Only 38 of those ended up being legit cases of fraud—and none were due to voter impersonation, which is the only kind of fraud voter-ID laws can stop. In 2012, News 21 pored over more than 2,000 allegations of election fraud across all 50 states since 2000, finding only 10 cases of legitimate voter-impersonation fraud.
Which brings us back to the issue of racism fueling these allegations of election rigging. The right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation recently released a report listing roughly 200 examples of election-fraud cases gleaned from news clippings. Almost half of them were cases of absentee ballot fraud, a voting form used more often by white voters. Many, if not most, of the fraud cases that the report lists involve white fraudsters from places that would not be considered “urban.”
And yet, purveyors of the voter-fraud myth press on. Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge James Peterson ruled on July 19 that Wisconsin’s voter-ID law was too strict, and that its defenders’ voter-fraud rationale was bunk:
As I found in my original opinion in this case, there is virtually no voter-impersonation fraud in Wisconsin. And the defendants have produced no evidence suggesting that the public’s confidence in the electoral process would be undermined by excusing those voters who cannot obtain ID with reasonable effort from presenting ID.
Judge Peterson doubled down on that in a separate ruling involving the voter-ID law less than two weeks later, this time saying:
The evidence in this case casts doubt on the notion that voter ID laws foster integrity and confidence. The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.
This, of course, hasn’t stopped the public from supporting voter-ID laws. Fine, but the public supports a lot of stupid stuff from time to time. Polls capture random people’s thoughts in the moment they’re questioned, but they don’t guarantee that the people polled are fully informed on the subject they’re being queried on.
If those same pollsters told the people they questioned that courts have found racial discrimination in almost every state where voter ID has been tried, then their answers might change. This, in fact, is exactly what the polling expert and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor emeritus Phil Meyer has been saying about voter-ID polls. People don’t have enough information about the poor merits of voter-fraud claims, nor about the racial discrimination these claims usually invite. The people pushing these claims are not concerned about election integrity, though; they just don’t want people of color to vote.