It is tempting, given Trump’s personality, to attribute his repeated claims of widespread voter fraud to the need of a fragile ego to explain away his 3 million vote shortfall in the popular vote, or to chalk it all up to a desire to curtail voting rights for populations who generally don’t vote Republican. But there are further and bigger reasons Trump might pursue the narrative that American voting is hopelessly broken. Trump’s insistence that American elections are beset by voter fraud also contributes to a larger effort to erode what little confidence remains among Americans in the institutions of government. When citizens have no confidence in the government, the party whose central ideological message is “government is bad” benefits.
Last week, Trump’s panel, officially titled the Presidential Advisory Commission on Electoral Integrity (CEI), held its first meeting and news conference. Although Vice President Pence described the CEI in his opening comments as “a bipartisan group that will perform a nonpartisan service to the American people,” Trump’s description of the commission as his “Voter Fraud Panel” makes explicit its mandate.
The commission is certain to operate off data that is well-known to be inaccurate. Commission chairman Kris Kobach has lauded the use of the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck system to identify multiple registrations for an individual voter. The flawed and widely discredited system has been shown to produce more than 200 false positives for every instance of multiple registration. As Kansas secretary of state, Kobach used the system and was fined by a federal magistrate for his “patently misleading representations” of the data. Furthermore, multiple registration proves neither fraud nor intent to commit fraud; it represents an administrative error that occurs when a voter moves, updates his or her registration, and the previous jurisdiction fails to immediately purge the previous one. Using Crosscheck, then, is relying on a flawed system that is effective only at disenfranchising legitimately registered voters.
Trump’s insistence that voter fraud is widespread derives not merely from this faulty data but also largely from conjecture, rumors and anecdotes. For Trump, evidence always boils down to tales of “something” seen by “someone,” specifics unnecessary. In January he created an “exceedingly awkward moment” with Republican lawmakers by revealing that his claims of widespread fraud originate with a third-hand anecdote from golfer Bernhard Langer. (Langer, a noncitizen who cannot vote, has disavowed the rumor.)
Thus, it is widely recognized that Trump’s voter fraud paranoia is based on a combination of bad data and hearsay of the type usually found in Facebook comments. What, then, helps account for the president’s insistence on pushing this narrative?
The delusion that there must be widespread voter fraud is best understood as a cousin of the “fake news” allegation that Trump and his supporters apply to any piece of information that is incompatible with their existing worldview. While allegations of lying in the media allow Trump and his allies to eliminate trust in any media outlets whose reporting might threaten him, allegations of voter fraud discredit the political process as a whole. This lays the groundwork for future close elections (or any in which Republicans are unsuccessful) to be denounced as illegitimate. Trump is casting the very mechanism by which Americans do politics as hopelessly corrupt and broken.
In their 2015 book “Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis,” political scientists Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph demonstrate in an extensive data analysis that levels of political trust in the United States have eroded dramatically over time. Accordingly, political efficacy — a combination of trust and citizens’ belief that they are able by their actions to influence government and politics — has plummeted. Mediocre voter turnout is a measurable manifestation of the belief among many Americans that voting simply doesn’t matter. Trump’s campaign against imaginary voter fraud is a campaign against the last bit of confidence Americans may have in their political system — that the results of American elections are real and fair.
The idea that the government cannot competently conduct an election dovetails nicely with conservative messaging. If citizens internalize this belief, then the argument that government should be downsized, restrained, neutered or otherwise vastly reduced will resonate more with the public. Moreover, if election results become another thing classified as “fake news,” any elected official and every act of government can be depicted as illegitimate, unjust and wrong. If the electoral system is presumed guilty, then no government it produces can have a mandate of popular support. For the party that longs to reduce the role of the government, this kind of vitiation of public authority is very useful.
Of course, if there is a real threat to the integrity of American elections, it is the sustained effort by Republicans to suppress voter registration and turnout — disenfranchising ex-felons, instituting discriminatory requirements for voting, making more difficult the process of voter registration, and limiting the availability of absentee ballots and early voting. But don’t expect the CEI to address these problems anytime soon — they will be busy hunting down phantom illegal voters the president hears about on the golf course.