For years, vote suppressors used a reliable playbook: hype false or misleading claims about rampant voter fraud — or even just the potential for it — then push for voting restrictions as the answer.
But these days, that playbook often isn't working anymore. In fact, some of those who follow it are paying a real political price.
Consider what just happened in Texas. It’s worth a close look, because the Lone Star State has one of the most shameful histories of voter suppression in the country, and over the last decade and a half has helped pioneer a slew of new restrictions. Gov. Greg Abbott helped kick off the modern panic over illegal voting back in 2006 when he was the state’s attorney general, falsely calling it an “epidemic.” So if phony voter fraud claims are losing their power in Texas, that’s likely a harbinger for the nation.
In January, David Whitley, the acting secretary of state, announced with much fanfare that 95,000 suspected noncitizens had registered to vote over the past 18 years, and that 58,000 had actually cast a ballot. Whitley’s office sent letters to all the suspected noncitizens on the rolls, saying their registrations would be cancelled unless they proved their citizenship.
Cue the usual hysteria: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a “VOTER FRAUD ALERT” on Twitter, spreading fear about voting by threatening to prosecute illegal voters. President Trump, in a tweet of his own, called the numbers “just the tip of the iceberg,” adding “voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped.”
But, amid a furious pushback from civil rights and democracy advocates — including the Brennan Center — in Texas and nationally, Whitley’s claims soon fell apart. Nearly one in four of those identified by Whitley as noncitizens were in fact naturalized citizens, making them eligible to vote. Of course, those victimized by the effort were overwhelmingly minority voters — a group that has borne the brunt of other recent voter suppression schemes in Texas.
So far, so predictable. In recent years, it’s become almost a ritual for Republican election officials to release eye-popping stats about illegal voting, aimed at grabbing media attention, only for those claims to wither under scrutiny, just as Whitley’s did. But the false hype often isn’t debunked until after the attention of the press and public has moved on, and it can still succeed in laying the groundwork for efforts to suppress voting.
This time, things played out differently. After a lawsuit by civil rights groups and a congressional probe into the actions of state officials, Texas agreed to stop its investigation into noncitizen voting. Whitley later apologized for causing “confusion about our intentions,” which he said were only ever to maintain the accuracy of the rolls. The coup de grace came Monday, when Whitley resigned as acting secretary of state after the state Senate rejected his nomination to the permanent post. Democrats made clear that it was the noncitizen fiasco that sunk his bid.
“We’ve turned a corner on vote fraud claims,” Michael McDonald, a leading elections expert at the University of Florida, tweeted in response to Whitley’s departure. “This lays down a marker for all election and law enforcement officials who in the future think to hype vote fraud claims before conducting due diligence investigations.”
That wasn’t all. A new restrictive voting bill, portrayed by its sponsor as a measure to stop illegal voting, had appeared headed for passage in the GOP-controlled Texas legislature. It would have increased criminal penalties for providing false information on a voter registration form — even honest mistakes by voters, which already have led to jail time in the state. It also would have made it harder for people to assist someone else in voting, potentially disenfranchising some elderly, disabled, or non-English-speaking voters. But last week, Republican legislative leaders, who haven’t been shy about ramming through past voting restrictions, appeared to get cold feet and quietly shelved the bill.
It’s not just in Texas where the power of vote suppressors to create fear around democracy looks to be on the wane. President Trump’s voter fraud commission, which aimed to gin up evidence of illegal voting to build support for new restrictions, collapsed under the weight of its own dishonesty and malevolence last year. And the panel’s leader, Kris Kobach, perhaps the most prominent vote suppressor in the country, lost his bid governor of deep-red Kansas in November.
Of course, none of this means the fight against voter suppression is anywhere near over, as the fiasco in Georgia last fall, and a strict new Tennessee voter registration law, among other developments, should remind us.
But it might mean that the politics of the issue are changing: that unsupported claims about illegal voting are less likely to fool people, and more likely to backfire on those who make them. With an election approaching next year in which one candidate is likely to do all he can to exploit fear around the act of voting, that can’t happen too soon.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
(Image: Shana Novak/Getty)