The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Voter fraud allegations about Trump aides point to a deeper scam

(Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post). (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)

As any minimally informed person knows, voter fraud is extremely rare in the United States, though individual cases do happen from time to time. And what fraud there is seems mostly to be the doing of people working for Donald Trump.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps. But on Tuesday, we learned that Matt Mowers, a former Trump aide running for Congress in New Hampshire, voted twice in the 2016 presidential primaries. The Associated Press reports that Mowers first voted in New Hampshire, where he was working for Chris Christie’s presidential campaign, then voted in New Jersey, “using his parents’ address to re-register in his home state.”

This follows the news that then-Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and his wife under investigation for potential voter fraud in North Carolina in 2020 by registering at a mobile home they never lived in (at the time they were living in Virginia) and using it to vote.

The natural impulse is to cry “Hypocrisy!” at these revelations — those screaming about voter fraud are the very ones committing it! But that’s the wrong way to look at it. If it were just hypocrisy, that would point to a much more hopeful future than the one we actually face.

Instead, what these stories reveal is how difficult it will be to ever reach a settlement on voting rules between Democrats and Republicans, one that would allow them to end the conflict over how elections are conducted and just get back to competing for votes.

It’s not just that elite Republicans don’t believe their fantastical claims about the ubiquity of voter fraud. That has always been obvious; it’s just one of many areas in which they treat their supporters like gullible fools, knowing that if a claim is repeated often enough on Fox News they’ll believe it no matter what.

Such dishonesty could, at least in theory, coexist with a genuine commitment to fair and accurate elections. They could have a sincere desire to make sure that fraud is reduced to zero and simply see exaggerating its prevalence as a way to motivate the public to support legal changes to achieve that goal.

But they don’t. When the president’s chief of staff is caught committing what appears to be voter fraud (trust me, he knows you’re not allowed to vote from a place you don’t live) and no Republican criticizes him, the truth becomes clear: Republicans don’t want a more secure system in which fraud is impossible for even a tiny number of people to pull off.

Maybe it’s because they know that the current system, in which fraud happens but is extremely rare, is adequate to achieve the goal of fair elections. But if they do think that, they certainly don’t want their constituents to know it. Instead, they want people to believe that the system is utterly corrupt and rife with cheating, and always will be.

That’s how Republicans justify voter suppression efforts aimed at Democrats, of course: Fraud is so rampant, they claim, that draconian measures are required to respond to it, even if in the process they block untold thousands of people from the ballot box.

That game has been going on for a long time. But now, after a couple years in which they were told that election systems are corrupt from top to bottom, Republican base voters have lost all semblance of sanity on the question.

Republicans always claim to be seeking “election integrity” with their voter suppression laws in states across the country. But for all the rhetoric about “restoring trust” in the system, that’s the last thing Republicans want. The more agitated and suspicious their base is, the easier is to justify more voter suppression, and worse, the greater the chance they can overturn future election results if Democrats should happen to win.

Which brings us to the reason the parties can’t work together to secure the system. For a time last year, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) sought Republican support for an election reform bill that would give Democrats some things (like guaranteed early voting) and Republicans some things (like voter ID).

But in the end, every Republican in the Senate stood against it, and the effort died.

Which wasn’t surprising, because the potential of a bipartisan settlement on voting rules presumes that there exists some system that both sides will accept as legitimate. The trouble is that it increasingly seems that Republicans, at least many of them, do not want their voters to accept the system as legitimate.

Accepting democracy means you accept the possibility that, sometimes, your side will lose fair and square — not because the other side cheated but because more voters preferred theirs to yours.

A truly secure system, built on rules both parties agreed on, would make that outcome inevitable at least some of the time. Which would make it impossible for Republicans to cry, “Fraud!”; pass more voter suppression measures; and claim Democratic victories are illegitimate — and therefore so is everything Democrats do when they hold power.

The last thing Republicans want is a system their voters believe in. And if a few of them get caught committing voter fraud themselves? That just proves their point.