Trump’s False Claims of Rampant Voter Fraud Draw From a Well-worn Racist Playbook

Republicans have tried to suppress turnout among voters who are poor, disabled or people of color for many years.

Joel Bleifuss

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove at an April meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Between the Repub­li­can Par­ty and Don­ald Trump, it’s hard to say which is more respon­si­ble for boost­ing vot­er sup­pres­sion into out­right elec­tion sab­o­tage. But it is use­ful to remem­ber upon whose watch the GOP learned how to sup­press turnout among vot­ers who are poor, Black, Lati­no, Asian Amer­i­can, Native or dis­abled in order to defeat Democrats. 

In a May 2007 sto­ry, The Fraud­u­lence of Vot­er Fraud,” I report­ed on the Bush administration’s purge of U.S. attor­neys, fired on the pre­text of fail­ing to pros­e­cute vot­er fraud (which nev­er actu­al­ly occurred). I wrote:

When Repub­li­cans talk about vot­er fraud they are refer­ring to ille­gal vot­ing by indi­vid­u­als, as opposed to vote fraud — sys­tem­at­ic attempts to steal an elec­tion by an orga­nized group of par­ti­sans. … On Feb. 15, 2005, the U.S. Sen­ate Repub­li­can Pol­i­cy Com­mit­tee issued a report, Putting an End to Vot­er Fraud,” which said, Vot­er fraud con­tin­ues to plague our nation’s fed­er­al elec­tions, dilut­ing and can­cel­ing out the law­ful votes of the vast major­i­ty of Americans.” 
… Lor­raine C. Min­nite, a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence [and expert on vot­er fraud] at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty [writes]: The exag­ger­at­ed fear of vot­er fraud has a long his­to­ry of scut­tling efforts to make vot­ing eas­i­er and more inclu­sive, espe­cial­ly for mar­gin­al­ized groups in Amer­i­can soci­ety. With renewed par­ti­san vig­or, fan­tasies of fraud are being spun again to undo some of the progress Amer­i­ca has made low­er­ing bar­ri­ers to vote.”
… It appears that, under [Deputy Chief of Staff Karl] Rove’s direc­tion, the White House has been plan­ning to use U.S. attor­neys to fan nation­al fears of vot­er fraud. … In Arkansas, Bush fired a sit­ting U.S. attor­ney in order to appoint Rove pro­tégé Tim Grif­fin. … In Wash­ing­ton, [he] fired U.S. Attor­ney John McK­ay [who] had refused to pros­e­cute alleged vot­er fraud. … On March 6, McK­ay tes­ti­fied before the Sen­ate that after the elec­tion Repub­li­cans pres­sured him to open an inves­ti­ga­tion. He said his office had exam­ined the alle­ga­tions of vot­er fraud and decid­ed there was not enough evi­dence to pur­sue a case. 
Had any­one at the Jus­tice Depart­ment or the White House ordered me to pur­sue any mat­ter crim­i­nal­ly in the 2004 governor’s elec­tion, I would have resigned,” McK­ay told the Seat­tle Times. There was no evi­dence, and I am not going to drag inno­cent peo­ple in front of a grand jury.” 
… [Min­nite] has read through the reports [of fraud. She said], As I delved into it, I was faced with the ques­tion: Why do peo­ple think there is a lot of fraud when there isn’t any real evi­dence?’ I think peo­ple are being manip­u­lat­ed by pol­i­tics, which takes the form of these reports that are dumped on the pub­lic. It is as if you get a big enough pile maybe you will con­vince peo­ple that the vol­ume of fraud is quite large and that we have a seri­ous problem.” 

Some­one has learned Rove’s lessons well.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

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