Some public officials and members of the media have prioritized calling out Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was fraudulently stolen from him for what it is: the Big Lie.
But in that truth-telling, it is crucial to remember that the false claims of election fraud that reached a crescendo in the deadly Capitol Hill insurrection long predate Trump. In fact, it is deeply rooted in the longstanding GOP tradition of pushing restrictive voting laws aimed at suppressing the votes of people least likely to support Republican candidates — particularly Black, brown, and poorer Americans — all in the name of stopping the very same type of imaginary voting fraud.
The result: a flood of state and local laws that have led to purged voter registration rolls, onerous identification and registration requirements, and limited access to early voting. All of which, as courts and studies have found, suppress the votes of the most reliable Democratic voters: those who are Black, brown, and poor. Before we can call out the Big Lie, we need to confront all the little ones Republicans have told for years.
While voter suppression efforts, particularly those aimed at Black voters, are as old as the nation itself, their popularity with Republicans soared after the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that gutted the key enforcement mechanism of the federal Voting Rights Act. That provision required changes to voting laws in certain voting districts with a history of voter suppression to be pre-cleared by the Department of Justice.
That rule was enacted for a reason: While the Constitution and other federal laws ostensibly outlawed the denial of the right to vote on the basis of race, laws and rules designed to disenfranchise Black voters in particular persisted.
The law didn’t eliminate voter suppression. After Black voter turnout reached record levels in the 2008 election that led to the nation’s first Black president, states quickly responded. By 2010, six of the 11 states that saw the highest turnout of Black voters — including Wisconsin, Ohio, and Georgia — had new, restrictive voting laws in place. Amid the lies of election fraud, one truth has remained constant: As the power of the Black vote rises, so do the efforts to stop it.
With the Voting Rights Act’s safeguard eliminated by a 5-4 court ruling, GOP-controlled state legislatures became more emboldened, enacting new strict voter identification laws or enforcing those that had previously been blocked by the DOJ. The lack of any evidence of widespread fraud was no obstacle to using it as a justification.
What followed was the sharpest drop in minority voter turnout in decades, according to a study by the Harvard Kennedy School — despite the passage of other laws that helped to expand voter access like online voter registration.
In states like Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas, the suppressive laws of choice were strict voter identification requirements. Evidence that the voters who are least likely to be able to obtain government-issued photo identification documents are Black, Latino, elderly, or poor, have not dampened Republicans’ zeal to use the imagined threat of voter fraud to make it harder for them to vote.
Even Republicans who tried to debunk the Big Lie — like the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, who roused Trump’s fury by shutting down the former president’s Big Lie about fraud costing him that state — nonetheless continue to push little lies that flow from it. In the same breath that he praised his own state for conducting a virtually fraud-free election despite record turnout and a raging pandemic, Raffensperger cited “concern” voters may have about that nonexistent fraud as a reason to make voting harder again.
But if any voters have reason to be concerned about the integrity of the voting process, it is the Black and brown voters who have for generations been the targets of voter suppression. The steal that truly needs to be stopped is the ongoing one that robs Black voters of access to the ballot box and strips them of their faith in an election system that has shown them time and again that their votes don’t matter.
Every once in a while, a Republican tells the truth about voter suppression, as in 2016, when Representative Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin predicted Trump could become the first Republican to win the Badger state in decades because, as Grothman said in an interview, “Now we have photo ID, and I think photo ID is going to make a little bit of a difference.”
If we are going to truly reject the dangerous myth of 2020 election voter fraud that spread like wildfire, filled the minds of conspiracy theorists, and served as an underpinning for the attack on the Capitol, it is not enough for Republicans who spread that lie — like Trump and Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley — to be held accountable. So too must every local, state, and federal elected official who for years has spread the little lies that served as the kindling for Trump’s misinformation inferno.
Call them all out.