In the wake of sexual assault scandals and falling poll numbers, Donald Trump has increasingly suggested that voter fraud (and not his awful personality) may lose him the election this November. Last week, Trump told a crowd of Wisconsin supporters: “They even want to try to rig the election at the polling booths, and believe me, there’s a lot going on … voter fraud is very, very common.” [pullquote]Trump told a crowd of Wisconsin supporters: “They even want to try to rig the election at the polling booths, and believe me, there’s a lot going on … voter fraud is very, very common.”[/pullquote] Last Monday, the Republican presidential candidate tweeted, “[o]f course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!”
While Trump’s conspiratorial rhetoric seems to echo the irrational, desperate yelps of a wounded and cornered animal, it may well resonate in the public mind. A recent national Economist/YouGov poll found that over two-thirds (72%) of voters surveyed were very or somewhat concerned about the security of the nation’s electoral system. Furthermore, Trump’s statements reflect a larger political narrative, spun over the course of two decades, which claims that Democrats steal elections through voter fraud.
The problem and threat underlying the voter fraud debate is almost entirely chimeric, phantasmal, ideological, and ungrounded. Scholarly consensus holds that voter fraud is extremely rare, and numerous studies have supported the notion that not only does intentional voting malfeasance scarcely take place; it is actually quite difficult to accomplish. For example, a comprehensive, ongoing study by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt found only 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation between 2000 and 2014, during which time more than 1 billion votes were cast. As Wendy Weiser of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice has said: “You are more likely to be struck by lightning, more likely to see a UFO, than to be a victim of voter fraud.”
Despite the fact that voter fraud constitutes not even a noticeable reality, much less a significant factor in elections, conservative news organizations like Fox News repeatedly highlight cases and dangers of alleged fraud; Trump has urged supporters to physically monitor polling places and even try to cast a second ballot (which would constitute fraud); and political operatives admit that they’ve endorsed voter fraud rumors and proposed voting requirements in order to gain political advantage. Within the past presidential term, 14 states have enacted new voting restriction laws. Many of these restrictions—including mandated English-only ballots, strict voter ID laws, reduction of polling places, and aggressive purging of voter rolls (often through voter caging)—would not have been allowed before Shelby County v. Holder, which overturned Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, eliminating the accountability measures long-imposed on states with histories of serious discrimination. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, most of the restrictions have been justified by the claimed necessity of mitigating voter fraud. Did I mention that that’s mostly a myth?
Unfortunately, while the problems are imagined and the fears invented, the political fight over voter fraud engenders more than political gamesmanship. Though the problem addressed isn’t real, efforts to prevent and combat voter fraud do real harm to people, particularly people who’ve been disenfranchised historically—African-Americans, Latinos, indigenous people, the elderly, people in poverty and people with disabilities. English-only election ballots pose obvious challenges for the 61.8 million people in the U.S. (21% of the population) who speak a non-English language at home; many of these people are citizens legally entitled to vote, regardless of the assumptions made about them. Reduction of polling places (and the long lines it produces) disproportionately affect people of color and low-income individuals, who are less likely to have a car with which to drive to a faraway polling place and who can less afford to take time off from their jobs. As Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said (after Arizona’s presidential primary was mired by 5-hour lines and ballot shortages) the problem includes but is not limited to reduction of polling places; distribution of polling places also tends to be “far more favorable in predominantly Anglo communities.”
Finally, while something of a non-issue for relatively wealthy people with driver’s licenses and passports, strict voter ID laws effectively prohibit the 11% of American citizens who have no government-issued photo ID from exercising their right to vote. Moreover, the impact is racially discriminatory: A widely-cited Brennan Center study determined that “twenty-five percent of African-American voting-age citizens have no current government-issued photo ID, compared to eight percent of white voting-age citizens.” Another study by the Black Youth Project found that young black and Latino voters were asked to show identification in order to vote at much higher rates (72.9% and 60.8% respectively) than were young white voters (50.8%). As summarized by a recent working paper from political scientists at UC San Diego (who controlled for exogenous factors like age, education, income, marital status, and other laws that affect participation), voter ID laws “have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections … skew[ing] democracy in favor of whites and those on the political right.”
It has been over 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was passed, but social inequality along racial and economic lines remains deeply entrenched. The increasingly vehement claims of, and warnings against, voter fraud are based on imagined conspiracies, abstract prejudices, and ideologically-fueled fights for power and control of the electorate. Yet as ethereal as voter fraud concerns might be—surely are—the attempts to address the concerns through voting restrictions have caused and continue to lead to the very real, physical and political disenfranchisement of low-income people, people of color, and other marginalized groups.
In a sense, Donald Trump is right: the American electoral system is rigged. It’s not rigged against Donald Trump, but it is rigged against participation and equality.