As Alberta notes in the article, Trump was making up his claims about rampant voter fraud. Or, really, he was making some up and amplifying others, just throwing out whatever claims he came across in an effort to cast the results of his 2020 election loss as somehow suspect. The point is that there was no attachment between his public comments and the reality of what occurred in the election. That he may have believed at least some of the claims he presented is hardly a defense.
This is an important distinction, though.
It can seem as though the Republican effort to hype claims of rampant fraud is self-serving because of the way in that they’re deployed to defend new restrictions on ballot access that often disproportionately affect Democrats. But it is also certainly the case that a lot of legislators sincerely believe that rampant fraud occurred in the last election and in elections before that. And that is a much different problem.
A Republican state senator in Iowa, Jim Carlin, said on Tuesday that “most of” his party’s caucus believes the election was stolen in 2020. He then proceeded to make claims about ways in which the election was purportedly stolen, claims that have been elsewhere explained or debunked. But what are you going to do? He believes it.
One could be forgiven for assuming that Carlin, too, might be simply misrepresenting his caucus’s position to make voting reforms seem more urgent. It is clear, though, that many elected Republicans aren’t being cynical in their assessments of what occurred last November. Several state legislators were seen at or arrested following the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. If they were simply leveraging fraud claims for political advantage, they were quite committed to the bit.
It makes sense that many Republican elected officials might think that rampant fraud poses a significant risk to federal elections (which, to be clear, it doesn’t). After all, polling from the Economist conducted by YouGov and polling from Monmouth University finds that about three-quarters of Republicans think President Biden didn’t win his election legitimately or only won due to voter fraud.
Republican elected officials are Republicans. While we might hope that they are a better-informed and more reality-based group than the average voter, there’s really little reason to think that many are. We would hope that they base their legislative decisions on real concerns and actual threats, but that requires familiarity with and acceptance of those threats.
It also requires political cover. A Republican who believes that there is no rampant fraud of the sort used to rationalize new voting restrictions would likely face blowback from his peers and from conservative media. As we’ve seen so often recently, it’s far easier to go along with the rest of the party and the concerns of the base than it is to stake out a contrarian position, however warranted by the evidence.
Tucker Carlson on Tuesday night had a quote that is fitting here, even though it was offered in a diametrically different context.
“A lot of Americans are completely and utterly misinformed, and that has actual consequences,” Carlson said. “Public policy can change dramatically on the basis of things people think they know but don’t actually know, and we have seen that, a lot.”
His example was one he invented, but his point is accurate. A lot of Americans are misinformed, particularly about voter fraud of late. And public policy is already being reshaped in response to that misinformation.
This makes combating the misinformation harder. It’s not a matter of simply exposing hypocritical appeals to voter fraud. It is, instead, a deeper matter of combating a complex latticework of beliefs premised on false assertions or, more problematically, misinterpreted ones.
It is certainly the case that some elected officials know that fraud is not a significant problem in our elections but are prepared to opportunistically “address” the problem anyway. But it is also certainly true that many Republicans think that fraud actually is the problem that Trump presented it as.
I was in Scranton, Pa., the weekend before the election and spoke to a number of people about how they planned to vote. Those who I spoke with that supported Trump all mentioned the purported threat of fraud that Trump had been baselessly amplifying for months.
“I feel like there’s going to be fraud and cheating in the Democratic Party,” one woman explained.
She was part of a group of Trump supporters who told me that they planned to volunteer to watch polling places the following Tuesday. Their concern about fraud was not cynical.