TIME politics

Donald Trump’s ‘Rigged’ Election Talk Amounts to Voter Suppression

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Hindu Coalition's Humanity United Against Terror Charity event at the New Jersey Convention & Expo Center in Edison, N.J., on Oct. 15, 2016.
Kena Betancur—Getty Images Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Hindu Coalition's Humanity United Against Terror Charity event at the New Jersey Convention & Expo Center in Edison, N.J., on Oct. 15, 2016.

Jeff Nesbit was the communications director to former Vice President Dan Quayle (R-IN) at the White House. He is the author of Poison Tea

Studies show voter fraud is very rare

So we’re down to this. Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s standard-bearer, seems convinced of a global conspiracy against him to steal the election—that international bankers and the media have conspired against him and that the will of the people will be subverted. Voter fraud will be rampant, he and his surrogates now charge.

Before deconstructing this political quagmire, it’s important to remember that voter fraud is basically nonexistent in the U.S. A slew of studies has shown this. But the claim that the election system is rigged and that voter fraud could somehow threaten elections—as Trump has alleged— is a common conspiracy (with no basis in fact) that is nevertheless believed by a significant minority of Americans.

“Voter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly non-existent, and much of the problems associated with alleged fraud in elections relates to unintentional mistakes by voters or election administrators,” the Brennan Center for Justice concluded in a definitive and exhaustive study of voter fraud in America.

What is quite real, though, is voter intimidation and voter suppression. The use of voter “fraud” investigations are largely built with this goal in mind: if the racial or gender demographics aren’t on your side in an election, your last chance to win is to effectively keep classes of voters from voting.

This sort of intimidation or suppression is almost precisely what’s happening in Indiana right now. Indiana’s Republican governor, Mike Pence—Trump’s running mate—has sent state troopers into more than half of the state’s counties to conduct “investigations” into potential voter fraud.

In one county alone, state troopers seized application papers for more than 45,000 newly registered black voters—effectively keeping them from voting in what is likely to be close presidential and Senate contests in the state. Multiply that sort of seizure of newly registered voter papers in 50-plus counties in Indiana by state troopers conducting investigations, and it’s likely more than enough to make a difference in a close contest.

Pence officials have said that the state police investigations are legitimate and that they believe instances of voter fraud will be found. But this looks mostly like voter suppression, conducted under the guise of an investigation of voter “fraud” (which, again, is essentially nonexistent in America). It’s more likely it has one simple, direct goal in mind: to disenfranchise voters. In this case, the goal would seem to be to keep newly registered black voters from supporting either Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton or Senate Democratic candidate Evan Bayh.

Pence actively supports these efforts. In a video of one of his campaign events, for instance, an audience member said: “One of the things that a lot of us are scared of is this voter fraud. I’m ready for a revolution, because we can’t have her in (office).” Pence responded, “Don’t say that,” and started backing away from her. But once he was beside the podium, Pence touted the state trooper voter fraud investigations in dozens of Indiana counties. “There’s a revolution coming on November 8th, I promise you,” Pence said. “I’ll tell you, in the state of Indiana right now, we’ve got a pretty vigorous investigation into voter fraud going on.”

Compared to voter fraud, voter intimidation, is a much more insidious (and potentially dangerous) method of trying to win by keeping the other side from even showing up at polls. This is the tactic that Trump and his super-surrogate, Rudy Giuliani, have begun to deploy in recent days by actively encouraging their supporters to go to polling places in the suburbs and urban areas to “monitor” activities.

“The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary – but also at many polling places,” Trump tweeted Sunday.

Giuliani took it further during an interview with CNN’sJake Tapper on Sunday, charging that voter fraud will be rampant in inner cities. “You want me to (say) that I think the election in Philadelphia and Chicago is going to be fair? I would have to be a moron to say that,” he said. “I’ve found very few situations where Republicans cheat. They don’t control the inner cities the way Democrats do. Maybe if Republicans controlled the inner cities, they’d do as much cheating as Democrats do.”

Tapper, for his part, didn’t accept that answer unchallenged. “I think there are a lot of elections experts that would have very, very strong disagreements with you.”

To repeat, voter fraud in the U.S. is now almost non-existent. Repeated studies and reports show it. But this fact won’t deter potentially millions of voters from believing in a “rigged election” in mid-November if Clinton wins.

Voters are being harassed or intimidated right now to keep them from showing up. And if that fails to work, and Clinton wins, then there is a very good chance that a significant minority of America will believe that the presidential election is not legitimate.

This, it hardly needs to be said, is a recipe for democratic disaster. Hopefully, elected GOP leaders in federal offices—like House Speaker Paul Ryan—choose to actively calm the waters if Clinton wins and the Democrats hold the White House. Ryan’s office issued a statement on Saturday gently rebuking Trump’s “rigged election” claims.

“Our democracy relies on confidence in election results, and the speaker is fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity,” Ryan spokesperson AshLee Strong said in the statement.

But it may take statements and actions that are much more forceful than this to keep order in the country if Trump loses and decides to turn his followers loose on what he genuinely seems to believe is an active, global conspiracy aligned against him and his followers. We’re already seeing violence spill over into the race, and it could get worse. Rigged elections don’t occur in the U.S. Millions of Trump’s followers, however, may not believe it.

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