It may not seem terribly important right now with all the stories roiling the campaign. But I think there’s a good chance it’s the most important. Over the last 48 hours Trump’s allies, surrogates and now Trump himself have forcibly injected the topic of voter fraud or ‘election rigging’ into the election. Longtime TPM Readers know this topic has probably been the publication’s single greatest and most consistent focus over fifteen years. The subject has been investigated countless times. And it is clear that voter fraud and especially voter impersonation fraud is extremely rare – rare almost to the point of non-existence, though there have been a handful of isolated cases.
Vote fraud is clearly the aim in what is coming from Trump allies. But Trump’s own comment – “I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest” – seems to suggest some broader effort to manufacture votes or falsify numbers, to allude to some broader conspiracy. Regardless, Trump is now pressing this issue to lay the groundwork to discredit and quite possibly resist the outcome of the November election.
Some might suggest that Trump’s prediction of a ‘rigged’ election is simply an extension of his complaints and vocabulary during the primary process. They’re wrong. Primaries have convoluted and complex rules. They’re not one person one vote elections. National elections have a clear cut set of rules. The only way to rig them is to change the vote numbers.
It’s true that Republicans have been very disingenuously pushing the ‘voter fraud’ con for years, especially as the power of minority voting has grown over the last two decades. However, as bad as that has been, there’s a major difference. Republicans to date have almost always used bogus claims of ‘voter fraud’ to rev up their troops and build support for restrictive voting laws, largely focused on minority voters. A number of those laws have been overturned by federal courts in the last week. A notable case was North Carolina where the Court found that the changes were intentionally designed to limit voting by black North Carolinians.
What Republicans politicians have virtually never done was use this canard to lay the groundwork for rejecting the result of a national election. This is Donald Trump, not a normal politician. You should not be surprised if he refuses to accept the result of an electoral defeat or calls on his supporters to resist it.
The other point goes to the raced nature of all voter suppression legislation. They focus overwhelmingly on claims that African-Americans commit rampant vote fraud in “inner cities” and that immigrants, particularly Hispanic immigrants do the same. These are of course two of Trump’s main group enemies. Combining the animosity he has already stoked among his followers toward these groups with the claim that they will now try to “steal” the election through fraud is nothing less than striking a match in a gas filled room.
Whether Trump is starting to lay the groundwork for contesting the election on claims of widespread voter impersonation fraud or some kind of broader effort for election officials to falsify results, we’re entering a dangerous new phase of the 2016 election campaign.