Cross-posted from USA Today.
We’ve all heard President Trump’s roundly-mocked claims that millions voted illegally in the 2016 election. There is, of course, no evidence to support those assertions.
Trump’s taunts are not new. They are merely a cartoon version of the rationale long used to justify misguided voting rules all over the country. And a new wave of harsh laws may be approaching. Lawmakers in Arkansas, Georgia, North Dakota, and Virginia have moved forward with legislation in recent weeks. At least 23 more states are considering bills.
But there are also unexpected signs that Trump’s bluster could badly boomerang. These lurid assertions may go far to discredit the myth of widespread voter fraud.
It’s been an epic tantrum. Shortly after taking office, Trump tweeted, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Trump says 3 to 5 million cast improper ballots. He stunned a group of senators into silence — no small feat — when he claimed that he lost in New Hampshire because thousands of voters were bused in from nearby Massachusetts. When pressed for evidence that noncitizens are registered by the millions, White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “It is a fact and you will not deny it.”
Also supposedly on tap: a high stakes investigation led by Vice President Pence, who is assembling a task force, and maybe even new laws.
This is all high-grade nonsense. There is simply no evidence of widespread voter fraud. An investigation from Arizona State University found 56 cases of alleged noncitizen voting from 2000 to 2012. A New York Times survey of election and law enforcement officials nationwide found two instances, out of nearly 140 million votes cast in 2016. As a statistical matter, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit in-person voter fraud.
Think about it: the notion that millions voted illegally, not 100 years ago, but three months ago, and nobody noticed, is absurd.
All these tweets and taunts are more than a distraction. Phony fraud claims have long been used to justify new laws, many of which have been struck down by courts. A federal court found North Carolina’s law targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Another court blocked a Texas voter ID law that disenfranchised 608,000.
Some Republicans want to require people to produce a birth certificate, passport or naturalization papers in order to register or even vote. Seven percent of voters lack documents that pass muster. Often the cost of new paperwork dwarfs the poll tax declared unconstitutional in the 1960s.
But something funny happened on the way to the courthouse.
It’s not only Democrats who have leapt to defend democracy. Trump’s claims now draw strong rebukes from fellow Republicans. During the campaign, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted said flatly, “I can assure him, as a fellow Republican, that it is not rigged.” (Trump lashed back. “So naive!”) Tom Rath, a GOP stalwart and former New Hampshire attorney general, called the allegations about his state “baseless.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the president to “knock this off.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said they’ve seen no evidence of fraud.
Perhaps the most unlikely rebuttal came from Trump’s own lawyers. “All available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake," his legal team said in its objection to the Michigan recount.
This Oval Office bluster seems even to have shifted public opinion, and not in his direction. A recent Politico poll showed 43 percent believe fraud is very or somewhat common — down from 64 percent in a February 2015 CBS survey.
With Republicans and Democrats alike defending the integrity of our voting process, could this be a pivot point? It’s not out of the question. Past the partisan wars, there should be room for broad agreement.
After all, voter ID may make sense — as long as they don’t require specific, narrow types of ID that lots of eligible voters do not have. Many states have strong security rules that don’t disenfranchise.
And the voter rolls are in fact a mess. The answer is automatic registration, a plan with growing bipartisan support. In November, 63% of Alaskans backed it even as they went strongly for Trump. Six states have enacted this system, which will increase accuracy and security, save money, and add millions to the rolls.
At his inauguration just weeks ago, Trump swore to uphold the Constitution — including the right to vote. Instead of chasing phantom fraud, he should join the effort to uphold this central American value. With luck his outlandish tweets and claims won’t mark a new wave of voter suppression, but the moment when the assault on voting died of overkill.