The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republican Party brings election fraud allegations back into the fold

Poll station watchers stand outside a polling station at the South Phoenix Moose Lodge during the first day of early voting on Oct. 12 in Phoenix. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
5 min

Donald Trump wasn’t the first Republican to suggest that American elections were riddled with fraud. Part of the reason his gambit was so successful, in fact, was that Republican voters had long viewed unfavorable election results with suspicion. In 2007, for example, President George W. Bush’s Justice Department announced that a five-year investigation had turned up no evidence of systematic voter fraud in American elections, a probe meant to respond to the hum of allegations from Bush’s base.

There are a lot of reasons these rumors burbled. One, it’s safe to assume, was that Americans were increasingly living in partisan isolation — they didn’t know anyone who supposedly voted for the opposition. This overlaps with the urban/rural political divide, given how often the rumors of fraud centered on supposed Democratic nefariousness in cities.

But the rumors were also intentionally fostered by Republican actors because they were useful. Get people to think that fraud is rampant, and they’ll support legislative responses to fraud. And those legislative responses almost necessarily involved making it more cumbersome for Democrats to vote. This is not a difficult chain of logic to follow.

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So, despite the obvious damage caused by Trump’s escalated claims about voter fraud — literal damage to the Capitol, political damage to Republican candidates linked to him — the Republican Party stands ready to try to repurpose that energy to its benefit. The Washington Post obtained a report prepared by the Republican National Committee that recommends not that the party uproot false and baseless claims of fraud but, instead, that it use them to win elections.

“The report concludes that the party must continue building on efforts begun after that electoral disaster to restore Republican faith in their elections,” The Post’s Amy Gardner and Isaac Arnsdorf write. “But instead of combating misinformation about fraud, the report encourages the recruitment of staff and volunteers to monitor elections and the development of more aggressive legal strategies to ‘hold election officials accountable for violating the law.’”

Again, much of this is how it has long worked. Say there’s fraud even when there’s not and then say you need to aggressively “monitor” who’s voting — a process that even if well-intentioned has the effect of deterring legitimate voters.

The Republican Party used to do this a lot. In the early 1980s, it literally policed polling places, stationing off-duty cops in heavily non-White areas. That led to a lawsuit from the Democratic Party — and a three-decade-long consent decree barring the GOP from engaging in this sort of election monitoring.

The consent decree was lifted in 2018.

Race is the constant subtext here. Many of the places that consistently rack up the biggest margins for Democrats are heavily Black precincts in cities. If you’re otherwise on the hunt for Democratic voters who might be conducting the sorts of shenanigans you think mar American elections, race is often a useful proxy for party. Of course, there’s also an exhaustive history of right-wing actors attempting to stifle the Black vote. The traditional “souls to the polls” turnout efforts in the South were created in part to offset intimidation that individual Black voters faced. Laws aimed at restricting voter access often disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic voters.

Even Trump’s sweeping fraud claims often centered on race — not that this is particularly surprising. When no evidence surfaced to support his claims that thousands of illegally cast ballots had affected the outcome, his allies pivoted their complaints about the election being “rigged” to things like efforts to increase turnout in heavily Democratic — read: heavily Black — areas. In Wisconsin, for example, a Republican-led investigation into the 2020 election wound up focusing mostly on funding from an outside group that was used to make it easier to vote in places where turnout was historically low, often meaning places with more low-income and non-White residents.

The 2022 election went better for the party. The vice chair of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Republican Robert Spindell, celebrated that shift in an email newsletter.

“We can be especially proud of the City of Milwaukee (80.2% Dem Vote) casting 37,000 less votes than cast in the 2018 election with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas,” it read in part. This was credited to a “multi-faceted plan” including “Biting Black Radio Negative Commercials run last few weeks of the election cycle straight at Dem Candidates.”

Spindell was only the latest Republican to celebrate efforts to tamp down the Black vote. At a rally after his 2016 election, Trump himself prompted applause when he praised Black people who didn’t vote. A Bloomberg article published shortly before that election indicated that suppressing Black votes was an explicit tactic deployed by his campaign.

On paper, none of this is what the Republican Party wants to do. On paper, it simply wants to do what it says it did in 2022: “restor[e] Republican confidence in the electoral process … by building the largest, most well-trained election integrity organization in the history of the Republican Party.”

That there is no valid reason to question the integrity of our elections is very much beside the point. Given that so many Republicans see Democratic voters as inherently suspect makes it easy to generate support for limiting or policing their ability to cast a ballot. For many Republicans, the very fact that any Democrats win anywhere is evidence that they must be cheating. So, naturally, it’s warranted to crack down on them until they don’t.

This is how it has worked for a very long time.