Somewhere in the midst of one of the most unusual 72-hour stretches in American presidential politics, Donald Trump took the time to tell a crowd gathered at an Ohio rally, Fox News viewers and The Washington Post that a recent string of court decisions overturning or rolling back voter-ID laws in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Kansas were "scary." They leave the election dangerously vulnerable to rigging and fraud, Trump said. And Trump, being Trump, also did not hesitate to say that this will enable an unspecified "they" to steal the election from an unidentified "us."
The allegations have thus far been described as Trump-style politics, an overt attempt to seed the notion that the election outcome cannot be trusted or that Trump himself remains a never-defeated winner in all things in the event of a Trump Election Day loss or a particularly close or unclear election outcome. That's true.
Trump's focus on voter-ID measures and description of these laws as all that stand between democracy and an illegitimate election might be standard Republican fare. But not coming from him. In some states, the fight to overturn voter ID laws — we are thinking of you, Texas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — have even been aided by the statements of lawmakers involved in crafting and passing voter ID laws in which the effort to suppress black and Latino votes was explicitly stated.
What Trump is suggesting now to his supporters is that a rigged election is coming now that some voter-ID laws have been felled. These are voters who are not just Republicans. We know that in part because of a string of high-profile Republican defections this week. Trump voters are people who in a series of polls over the course of the 2016 election have indicated they see particular truth and value in Trump's claims that their legitimate economic concerns can be addressed with some combination of better trade deals that only he can negotiate, a social reset guided by an embrace of Trump-type political incorrectness and a Trump-designed program of mass deportations.
"His comments are as preposterous about voter-ID as they are everything else," said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, a voting rights organization that has been directly involved in several cases seeking to overturn voter-ID laws. "He's trying to set the stage for questioning the outcome of the election and continued on his path of creating fear about the bogeyman [in American society]. The bogey man includes all of the groups of people he has offended over the past year with his campaign. He is about ginning up a mix of fear and racism. And that is what he is doing by questioning what has happened on voter-ID [laws in courts].
"He's reading out of the same old playbook of the Republican Party on voter suppression. But what is different here is that he has created a story line that is creating fear and is living off the xenophobia that has been a part of his campaign from the start. When Trump tells people we have to have voter ID or 'they' will rig the election, he is conjuring up who is going to be stealing the election. He's creating the picture and perception of those same people who he thinks should be feared and excluded [for other reasons] will now be stealing the election."
Dubious? First, consider this collection of Trump's statements with care:
- "I'm afraid the election's going to be rigged. I have to be honest." — Trump during a Monday campaign event in Ohio, a must-win state for any Republican running for the White House.
- “You don’t have to have voter ID to now go in and vote, and it’s a little bit scary, and I’ve heard a lot of bad things,” Trump said to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. “I mean, people are going to walk in, they are going to vote 10 times maybe.” — Trump during a Monday interview on Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor"
- "“I’m telling you, November 8th, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged,” he told host Sean Hannity. “And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.” — Trump during a Monday interview on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor"
- "I don’t like what’s going on with voter ID ... Well, I think its ridiculous. I mean the voter-ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times. It’s inconceivable that you don’t have to show identification to vote or that that the identification doesn’t have to be somewhat foolproof ... I don’t want to jump the gun. I don’t want to talk about that. I’m just saying that I wouldn’t be surprised if the election ... there’s a lot of dirty pool played at the election, meaning the election is rigged. I would not be surprised. The voter-ID, they’re fighting as hard as you can fight so that that they don’t have to show voter ID. So, what’s the purpose of that? How many times is a person going to vote during the day?" -- Trump in an interview with The Washington Post
Ohio, where Trump began advancing these ideas, is not just any state.
It's the place that every Republican who has ever won the White House has carried, but which Democrats have claimed in 2008 and 2012. Democrats won Ohio in 2008, in large part due to the Obama campaign's get out the vote efforts focused on big, diverse cities. In the run-up to the 2012 election and thereafter, the emergence of voter-ID laws and efforts to roll back early voting times became Republican causes after some became convinced that some combination of voter fraud and early voting produced 2008's results. This, in turn, appears to have motivated some voters of color to put extra effort into voting in 2012, turning the state blue again.
Federal law has long allowed, even encouraged, states to require clear proof of one's identification at registration. Proof of identification has been broadly defined to include state issued ID or some combination of bank records, student or work IDs, state-issued licenses, birth certificates, utility bills and the like. What are known as voter-ID laws entered partisan conflict territory after the American Legislative Council (ALEC), a political organization with membership comprised primarily of corporate members and Republican lawmakers, began getting model legislation passed that narrowed the forms of ID acceptable to register or vote. This new list of required forms of ID — narrower than that which is required to fly or write a check or any other number of activities not guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the Constitution — just so happens to include documents that millions of Americans do not have. A disproportionate share of these Americans are black or Latino and vote for Democrats.
This set off a series of court battles between voter ID law defenders and voting rights advocates and civil rights groups in which a number voter ID laws were temporarily enjoined, permanently rolled back or modified or struck down entirely. That's because voting and civil rights advocates have not only been able to provide a body of evidence that shows that voter fraud is an almost nonexistent problem. They have been able to provide emails, transcripts of bill discussions on the floors of state legislatures and other materials that make the evidence of discriminatory intent, in some states, irrefutable. For this, we will direct you to stories here, here and here. Then, there's the information here, here, here and here too.
In addition to this, conservative commentators and Republican party operatives have not been at all shy about suggesting that voter fraud is a Democratic Party tradition, even describing efforts to overhaul immigration policy as an attempt to bring illegitimate voters into the Democratic fold, and requiring more rigorous ID checks in voting right now. In Florida and other states with large immigrant populations and substantial numbers of voters of color, efforts to purge suspect voters from the registration rolls in 2012 seemed to frequently focus on black and Latino voters with the legal right to vote. That hasn't stopped.
This week alone, the New York Times reported that sheriff's deputies in Hancock County, Ga., had taken to delivering summons to voters instructing them that they must appear in person at a government office to provide proof of residency and sustain their right to vote. The summonses reached 180 black voters, about 20 percent of that city's electorate. Hancock County is about 72 percent black, 24.5 percent white. But the bulk of its elected offices are held by white residents. After the sheriff's deputies did their thing, a white candidate narrowly won the mayoral election in Hancock's largest city.
In short, the effort to stoke concern among the nation's overwhelmingly white, conservative voters about voter fraud has become handy way to justify voter suppression of groups that have historically faced great, sometimes deadly, difficulty in voting. Within the context of Trump's campaign, his turn toward voter-ID and alleged voter fraud should not be described euphemistically, or in simply partisan terms.
Trump is suggesting that his overwhelmingly white base (the "us" in his telling) is at extreme risk of being politically overpowered, scammed or bested by a "them" that is far more racially and ethnically diverse — and votes overwhelmingly with the Democratic Party.