Even before he walked onto the debate stage Monday night at Hofstra University, Donald Trump was complaining that his first head-to-head contest with Hillary Clinton was not fair. “The system is being rigged,” he charged last week. “They want the host to go after Trump.”
For the Republican nominee, the alleged unfairness of the debate was a new take on a familiar theme. Since the beginning of his campaign, Trump has said that our politics is rigged not only against ordinary Americans but also, somehow, against Trump himself. This summer, he went so far as to suggest that the outcome in November, should Clinton prevail, might not be legitimate. “If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised,” he said in an interview with The Post. “We may have people voting 10 times.”
In many ways, our political and economic system is indeed rigged. But it is progressive leaders such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), not Trump, who are putting forward real solutions to the problem. More to the point, if the election is swayed, it will not be because of voter fraud, which is virtually nonexistent in the United States. It will be because of voter suppression efforts led by Republicans across the country.
Indeed, one element of the race that has gotten lost in the spectacle of the campaign is that it is the first presidential election since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The controversial ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which divided the court 5 to 4 along ideological lines, opened the floodgates for Republican governors and state legislators nationwide to push through a slew of new voter ID laws and other voting restrictions. Accordingly, millions of Americans will go to the polls without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act and under restrictive voting laws enacted in 14 states.
One of those states is Wisconsin, where a recently leaked trove of emails shows exactly how Republicans hype false claims of voter fraud to delegitimize election results and justify voting restrictions aimed at suppressing the Democratic vote.
In the emails, published by the Guardian this month, Republican insiders conspired to manufacture claims of voter fraud to influence a critical Wisconsin Supreme Court election in 2011. As the results came in showing conservative Justice David Prosser at risk of losing his seat, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce senior vice president Steve Baas wrote, “Do we need to start messaging ‘widespread reports of election fraud’ so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number? I obviously think we should.” Former state assembly speaker Scott Jensen (R) replied, “Yes. Anything fishy should be highlighted. Stories should be solicited by talk show hosts.”
Prosser ultimately won in a recount. The following month, Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed one of the harshest voter ID laws in the nation. While legal challenges kept the law from taking effect before the 2012 election, its partisan intent was clear. As one former Republican legislative aide later recalled, some Republican state senators “were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters.” In 2013, Walker signed yet another law imposing restrictions that would make it harder to vote. A federal judge recently struck down those rules, along with part of the voter ID law, concluding that Republicans had deliberately attempted “to suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African-Americans.”
Of course, Wisconsin is just one of many places where Republicans have attempted to hijack the democratic process. In total, 20 states have enacted new voting restrictions since 2010, including Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Arizona. Because these laws disproportionately affect minorities, it is reasonable to assume they will work in Trump’s favor. Indeed, as reporter Ari Berman wrote in the Nation in May, given his historic unpopularity among minorities, “there’s only one way Trump can win the general election: by massively suppressing Democratic voters or hoping they don’t show up on Election Day.” In other words, by rigging the system.
“When you have voter ID laws that pretend to be about common-sense reform, but in fact are about suppressing the votes of Democrats and have been proved to make a difference of two or three percentage points in a race, that is rigging the vote,” University of California at Irvine professor Jon Wiener recently explained. On Monday night, Trump once again failed to offer any serious proposals to fix the “rigged system” he has criticized so often throughout the campaign. But when it comes to the forces that could influence the election itself, Trump’s rhetoric is completely at odds with reality. It is voter suppression — not fantasies of fraud — that could actually undermine the will of the people.
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