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Claims of voter fraud, old as the republic, still work as weapons for Trump

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on Aug. 6.
Brandon Bell
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Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on Aug. 6.

Most elections are, at least in part, reactions to the results of the last election. Usually, that means they function as a referendum on the last election's winners and their performance in office.

It is unusual, if not unprecedented, for the midterm cycle to focus on the conduct of the last election — a kind of referendum on the legitimacy of the system itself.

By that standard, 2022 qualifies as unusual indeed.

Donald Trump and his followers, who now represent the activist core of the Republican Party, have insisted on making 2022 a do-over of 2020. Their essential argument is not that President Biden has failed or been a bad president, but that he was never legitimately elected president in the first place.

Trump has in fact this past week demanded he be "reinstated" as the "rightful winner" of the 2020 election or that the election be re-run "immediately" because Facebook had been advised by the FBI not to trust certain stories about Biden's son, Hunter, during the 2020 campaign.

Trump continues to insist, after 20 months, that he won an election that he lost by more than 7 million in the popular vote and by 306-232 in the Electoral College. Neither he nor his acolytes have produced any evidence to undermine those totals. But they have eroded confidence in the system and its caretakers to the degree that a majority of Republicans tell pollsters they think the election was "stolen."

The rest of the GOP, including prominent leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, would clearly prefer to talk about Biden and about inflation, gas prices, crime and immigration. But they cannot wrest the party's megaphone back from the man who has monopolized it since 2015. And whatever they think of Trump personally, they are as reliant as he is on the support and donations and votes of his followers. So they fall in line, or they fall silent.

The rise of election denial in the GOP

Moreover, a new generation of candidates has emerged and surged in GOP primaries by stressing their embrace of Trump's claims.

Trump has endorsed 159 candidates who are election deniers for state and federal offices this year, and about 80% of them have already won their Republican primaries, according to a survey by The New York Times. A separate survey by The Washington Post found 87 election deniers among candidates for offices that will matter to the vote certification of the next election in six battleground states he narrowly lost in 2020 (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Of that number, 54 have already won their primaries.

"The 2020 election was stolen," say the MAGA candidates who wear Trump's favor, adding, "You know it and I know it." That statement of assurance is usually the only proof offered. And the crowd at the rally roars back its affirmation.

The "you know it and I know it" mantra is also available in a variety of display formats. You can go on Amazon today and order it on a package of 10 waterproof vinyl car decals, or go elsewhere for it on a doormat or on a polyester flag measuring 15 square feet.

From the standpoint of a fact-checker, there is no evidence of fraud sufficient to support that claim. After nearly two years of recounts, ballot reviews, expert examinations and court cases, that remains the bottom line. The 2020 election has been scrubbed and studied as none other in U.S. history, and the consensus conclusion remains that it was run more smoothly and counted more reliably than ever.

So why do Trump's people continue to deny the outcomes, and why do crowds cheer?

Perhaps, because in politics, myth can be as powerful as fact — and at times it may well be more so.

Claims of voter fraud have become integral to Trump's brand. But he did not invent the idea of a stolen election. He exploited it as no one had before, to be sure, but he was mining a lode that had been opened long ago and tapped as a rich source of grievance for generations.

Deep and tenacious roots

For the "election deniers," and for many Americans who accept the 2020 results but still think voter fraud is a big problem, the roots of these beliefs are deep.

The Heritage Foundation, long an anchor on the right among think tanks in Washington, devotes a page of its website to voter fraud and offers a database of cases. It also offers a disquisition on ballot stuffing and voter intimidation and other forms of malfeasance common in the 1700s and 1800s and early 1900s.

The prime example cited by Heritage is an election stolen by the notorious Democratic machine in New York City known as Tammany Hall. It happened in 1844. More recent examples cited include a mayoral primary in East Chicago, Ind., in 2003.

The figure of 1,182 is cited for the total of criminal prosecutions for voter fraud in recent years, most of them dealing with improper registration or fraudulent use of absentee ballots. They are listed as 2022 cases, but on further inspection they date back over a period of years and arise from primaries as well as general elections. The database does not mention that in 2020 alone there were more than 50 million votes cast in primaries and more than 158 million in the November election.

William Safire was a White House speechwriter for President Richard Nixon who later spent decades writing columns on politics and language for The New York Times. In his popular New Political Dictionary, he wrote extensively on "ballot box stuffing" and "cemetery voting." He, too, went back to Tammany Hall rigging outcomes for the Democrats in New York City in the 1800s, while also allowing that the Republican strongholds in upstate New York were often suspect in their reporting as late as the 1920s.

Safire noted that many had believed the 1960 presidential election was tipped to John F. Kennedy and running mate Lyndon B. Johnson by vote theft in rural Texas counties and the heavily Catholic precincts of Chicago, where the Democratic machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley held sway. One story often repeated among Protestant Republicans in Illinois described school buses shuttling nuns around the city on Election Day, unloading them to vote at every Catholic parish they passed.

Still, in Safire's treatment, these phenomena were historical artifacts of an era before mechanized and later digitized voting became the norm and cheating became more challenging. The Florida vote counting fiasco in 2000, which struggled for weeks to ascertain a reliable result, ended the era of complacency on this score. In the end, the Supreme Court upheld a count by which George W. Bush won the state by just over 500 votes, thus securing Florida's crucial contribution to his minimum-margin win in the Electoral College.

Since then, the administration of U.S. elections has been thoroughly examined and renovated. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) devoted billions to upgrading the election infrastructure, and many states instituted reforms of their own to facilitate and improve their voting and counting systems.

At the same time, the Bush White House was directing the Department of Justice to investigate thoroughly the possibility that voter fraud in major cities was padding the Democratic vote in swing states. The probe began in 2002 and five years later had little to show for its work. The federal Election Assistance Commission, tasked with finding fraud, reported that while some abuses had occurred, they were far from systematic or pervasive enough to matter much.

Nevertheless, the search went on and some U.S. attorneys around the country felt they were being pressured to prioritize prosecutions for voter fraud. Several resigned, and the allegations became part of the investigation Democrats began into the department after taking the majority in Congress in 2006. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, appointed by Bush in 2005, resigned in 2007.

Trump brings the issue back to the fore

Talk of voter fraud simmered down a bit thereafter. But the issue returned to prominence when Trump, after years of pumping up the "birther" conspiracy about Barack Obama's citizenship, shifted his focus to voter fraud in 2016. The only way he could lose, he said often that year, was if the election were stolen.

When he won that year, Trump still leveled angry allegations of voter fraud, perhaps because he had lost the national popular vote by nearly 3 million. He said between 3 million and 5 million non-citizens had voted in California alone, but he offered no proof whatsoever. He then appointed a bipartisan commission to find the proof, not just in California, but nationwide.

The commission was soon identified with the aggressive tactics of its vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who had sent requests around the country for extensive voter data. Many states, both red and blue, resisted or flat out refused. Dissension broke out within the commission, which disbanded after seven months without having found any evidence of voter fraud.

Nonetheless, Trump was back in the 2020 cycle predicting he could only lose if there was fraud, and that stance once again segued into a fury of denial and denunciations when he lost. While he struck out in the courts at the state and federal level (the Supreme Court refused to hear any of the appeals), Trump took his case to the public and has had considerable success in sowing doubt among his sympathizers.

At least one of the other Republicans eyeing the 2024 presidential election cycle, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has also made voter fraud a signature issue. In August, he held a news conference at which he announced the filing of charges against 20 Floridians who he said had voted illegally in 2020.

With rows of his "election police" posed behind him, DeSantis said he was outing ex-offenders who had no right to vote because of the seriousness of their crimes. It was later reported that at least some of the ex-offenders had believed their rights had been restored by a referendum Florida voters had approved by a big margin in 2018.

Getting stronger still?

Ricky Hatch is a Republican in Weber County, Utah, who has been an election official there since 2012. He is among several local election administrators from around the country who appear in a forthcoming book by CBS News reporter Major Garrett and David Becker, a previous longtime elections lawyer with the Department of Justice who founded the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research. In The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of "The Big Lie," Garrett and Becker detail the travails of the ordinary citizens on the front lines of the voting struggle.

Hatch said some of his neighbors cannot be persuaded even when he personally demonstrates to them how all the machinery of the process works right there in their home county. "They say, 'I know your machines have been hacked by China,' " Hatch reports. "I show them there is no means to hack the machines, that nothing is connected. They just say, 'They have been hacked, you just don't know it.' "

Hatch says he has heard objections from skeptics over the years, but nothing like the wall of denialism erected by Trump.

"I hate saying this, but he has the same characteristics as a cult leader," Hatch says. "He pulls people into a belief system. I thought it would die down. ... It's getting stronger."

At a minimum, the issue of voter fraud seems undiminished in its ability to galvanize certain categories of voters and create doubt about the outcome of elections.

Perhaps that should not be surprising. Voter fraud exists, but its prevalence and importance are less a matter of fact than of belief. Relying on that belief to explain away unpalatable election results is an exercise of faith, but one that millions find more acceptable than all the arguments and evidence from experts, courts and academics.

In the end, articles of faith are just that. Whether you consider faith to be higher than reason or simply unreasonable, such beliefs can be largely immune to factual refutation or rational argument. And they can be powerful motivators of human behavior, including at the polls.

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Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.