That misperception has created an absurd paradox: Because Republican voters falsely believe that America’s elections are rigged, they are insisting that their party leaders take action that would undercut election integrity. Encouraged by a deluded base, many elected Republicans are now using lies about election integrity to push an expansive agenda of voter suppression, a tactic of electoral manipulation that has a long and ugly racist history in the United States. To address a fake problem, they are reinforcing a real one.
These authoritarian machinations are a serious threat to American democracy. But what Republican leaders may not realize is that their lies about the quality of U.S. elections pose a serious threat to their political chances in the 2022 midterms, too. Republicans seem not to care about the violent consequences of spreading lies about election fraud or torching faith in democratic institutions. But they might care once they understand that spreading baseless Trumpian conspiracy theories about voter fraud isn’t just immoral and authoritarian. It’s also politically idiotic.
As I’ve seen firsthand in many contested elections across the world, when one party rejects the legitimacy of electoral processes, it can create blowback in unexpected ways. Next year, Republicans may learn the hard way that embracing Trump’s baseless election conspiracy theories could have catastrophic consequences for their party’s electoral prospects.
Sri Lanka offers an example. In its 2005 elections, the country’s Tamil ethnic minority (accurately) viewed the presidential elections as a lost cause, an unfair process that would inevitably shut them out of power. Some in the Tamil community began to suggest that voting was pointless. Tamil leaders called for an election boycott.
In the eventual showdown between a presidential candidate who was more favorable to Tamil interests and a hard-liner who opposed them, the hard-liner narrowly won — a victory that wouldn’t have happened without the Tamils staying home. Over the next 3½ years, the hard-liner led military operations against militant Tamils, decimating them. The boycott had backfired.
This is just one example of many. As political scientist Emily Beaulieu Bacchus of the University of Kentucky has shown in her research, election boycotts in broken democracies frequently backfire, inadvertently giving more political power to their rivals. Yes, of course, the United States is not Sri Lanka — a place where election manipulation actually happens. But the parallel is nonetheless instructive.
Because of the staying power of Trump’s lies about election fraud within the Republican base, a split is likely to emerge in the GOP. Next year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will surely do everything he can to reassure his voter base that their votes will fully count in the midterms. He will (correctly) insist that the system is legitimate and encourage Republicans to get out and vote.
But, as in Sri Lanka, the electoral landscape looks different when you figure you’re going to lose anyway — and your voters already believe the process is unfair. Long-shot GOP candidates in Democratic strongholds, politicians who are defeated in Republican primaries and firebrand pundits with nothing at stake electorally may find themselves tempted to call for boycotts. Trump himself may join the chorus, amplifying his lies from 2020 even if he doesn’t call for a boycott.
In Georgia’s 2021 special election, a preview of this phenomenon already played out after Trump spread lies about his election defeat. Two unhinged Trump acolytes, Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood, called for a boycott. Some in Georgia’s Republican party have blamed that attempted boycott for the party’s ensuing razor-thin losses, which handed control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats. Imagine that replicated in all 50 states.
This electoral risk for Republicans is compounded because they’re already going to lose plenty of voters who went to the polls in 2020 to vote for Trump rather than to vote for Republicans more generally. Those low-propensity voters are even more likely to stay home than more devoted Republican supporters if they falsely believe their votes don’t matter.
In battleground states, marginal changes in turnout among irregular voters often decide elections, particularly in midterm contests when citizen apathy is already substantially higher than in presidential years. So, even if a small percentage of Republicans stayed home because of fake claims of election manipulation, it could prove decisive.
Republican lies about election-rigging could also create political blowback in other ways. Sadly, it would not be remotely surprising if a true believer (or a group of them) carried out acts of political violence in the run-up to the midterm elections in a delusional attempt to fight against election fraud. That’s not just perilous for our democracy. It would also likely create enormous backlash against the Republican Party that could cost its members seats they could otherwise win.
We need to stop Republican lies about America’s elections. Republicans themselves seem unmoved by concerns that they’re destroying faith in our democratic institutions. Perhaps they’ll be more swayed once they understand they’re also working against their own political self-interest.