What could be worse than the U.S. president spreading lies and conspiracy theories about voting fraud to make himself feel better about losing the popular vote by millions? Unfortunately, that’s no longer a rhetorical question. After repeating the groundless claim that millions of people illegally voted for Hillary Clinton, Trump recently announced that his administration will launch an “investigation” designed to generate the “evidence” to support his belief. And this week White House policy adviser Stephen Miller made the rounds on Sunday talk shows spouting repeatedly debunked claims about massive voter fraud.
When pressed about the utter lack of proof for the White House’s assertions, Miller conveniently responded that “this morning, on this show, is not the venue for me to lay out all the evidence” but that “everybody” knows it.
At best, such an “investigation” by Team Trump will be a distraction from the real voting scandal of 2016: laws designed by Republicans to make it harder for targeted groups of people to vote. In reality, the so-called investigation will be used to justify even further voter suppression efforts of the kind that Republicans put in place after the Supreme Court’s conservatives gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. It’s worth noting that that decision was cheered by newly-confirmed attorney general Jeff Sessions.
Trump’s announcement-by-tweet and Miller’s remarks this weekend have made it clear that the White House is already stacking the deck by equating messy voter rolls—such as a person whose name remains on a list after they move or die—with actual fraudulent voting. Outdated lists are a continual administrative reality; fraudulent voting is a virtually nonexistent one.
In Texas, lawmakers took the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act as a green light to enforce a restrictive voter ID law that had been blocked under the now-dismantled provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The state argued it was necessary to prevent rampant fraud, but could produce only two cases of voter impersonation out of ten million votes. “On the other hand,” writes Emory University’s Carol Anderson, “it became clear that nearly 600,000 Texans, mainly poor, black, and Hispanic, didn’t have the newly required IDs and often faced financial and bureaucratic obstacles in obtaining them.”
A federal judge ruled in the fall of 2014 that the Texas law was discriminatory in intent as well as effect. After the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Texas a stay of the decision, the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights activists asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the Court should protect public confidence in elections by stopping Texas from implementing “a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.” But the Court, led by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, kept the law in place, and courts are still wrestling with it.
Even after federal judges slammed some restrictive state voting laws—an appeals court judge wrote that North Carolina’s law targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision”—Republican legislators sought new ways to impede minority voters by closing voting locations and limiting voting hours. Investigative reporter and author Ari Berman reported that 14 states “had new voting restrictions in place for the first time in 2016,” and on Election Day “there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voting discrimination, like Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina.” It’s no surprise that many of those states had seen record African American voter participation during Barack Obama’s candidacies, and many have witnessed significant growth in their Hispanic population.
During questioning at Sessions’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Al Franken noted that state election and law enforcement officials have found “virtually no credible reports of fraud among the nearly 138 million votes that were cast” in the 2016 election, adding, “What’s truly troubling about this, I believe, these bogus claims of voter fraud, is they’re routinely used to justify voter suppression.”
Indeed, some state officials have essentially admitted the laws’ partisan purposes—and in states that are particularly important politically. In 2012, Pennsylvania’s House Leader Mike Turzai said the state’s voter ID law was “gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Last year, Rep. Glenn Grothman said that Wisconsin’s restrictive voter ID law would help Republicans carry the state. North Carolina’s Republican Party called a decline in African American early voting “encouraging.”
In 2014, Richard Posner, a conservative judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, called assertions about voter fraud “a mere fig leaf for efforts to disenfranchise voters.” And noteworthy in an era in which the White House justifies its policies with “alternative facts,” Posner characterized Wisconsin officials’ justifications for voting restrictions as coming from within a “fact-free cocoon.”
The GOP is no newbie to this pernicious game, and neither is Trump. During his presidential campaign hepromoted plenty of bogus “voter fraud” conspiracy theories making the rounds in far-right circles. He has argued—without evidence, of course—that Barack Obama won his elections thanks to votes cast by non-citizens and “dead people.”
We cannot allow the Trump administration to use its “alternative facts” as another set up or excuse to further undermine our democracy by erecting more barriers to voting. It’s a lie that will be used as an excuse for even more voter suppression. If we want to preserve this democracy we, the people, must resist now.
Michael Keegan is the president of People For the American Way.