Last weekend, President Trump tweeted a warning: “All levels of government and Law Enforcement are watching carefully for VOTER FRAUD, including during EARLY VOTING. Cheat at your own peril. Violators will be subject to maximum penalties, both civil and criminal!” But study after study has concluded that, in a nation of more than 300 million people, voter fraud is vanishingly rare. The myth of voter fraud persists only because it is ingrained in modern politics, after a decades-long effort by Republicans to portray Democratic votes, and especially African-American votes, as fundamentally suspect.
The modern myth of voter fraud began in 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s sixth year in office, when Republicans recognized that their policies could not attract a majority of voters. Their budget cuts had hit black Americans particularly hard. An attempt to weaken Social Security just before the election bode ill for the midterms, especially since the Republicans had to defend vulnerable senators elected in 1980 on Reagan’s coattails. How could Republicans address the gap between the unpopularity of the programs and their determination to win? Not by changing their policies, but by changing the composition of the electorate.
The GOP launched a “ballot integrity” program to prevent “voter fraud,” claiming that dead or fictional people were casting ballots. Republican officials sent mail to registered voters in heavily Democratic areas in Louisiana, Indiana, and Missouri, and if the mail came back as undeliverable, Republicans would challenge those individuals’ right to vote. Democrats sued, and the suit turned up a memo between Republican National Committee officials explaining the purpose behind the program: “I would guess that this program will eliminate at least 60-80,000 folks from the rolls,” one GOP operative wrote. “If it’s a close race, which I’m assuming it is, this could keep the black vote down considerably.”
Of course, the idea of keeping African-Americans away from the polls was not just a tactical choice, and it has a much longer history. After the Civil War, white racists insisted the country’s newly enfranchised black voters simply wanted government handouts and cared little about the good of the nation. Purging such undeserving ingrates from the body politic, the argument went, was a public service, leaving the nation’s government in the hands of white men who understood what was best for everyone. The civil rights movement resurrected this old linkage of racism, economics, and politics, as opponents of integration insisted that black Americans demanding equal rights were, in fact, trying to redistribute the wealth of hardworking white men to their own pockets through taxation.
Ronald Reagan played to this theme in his political rise, warning that taxes were sucking hardworking white men dry to support folks like the “welfare queen,” who, he said, “has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.” But it was not simply greedy black Americans destroying the country. Any American who believed that the government should regulate business or provide a basic social safety net — in short, anyone, Democratic or Republican, who accepted the premises of the New Deal state and was willing to levy taxes to pay for them — was dangerous. By 1990, Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia was attacking even Republican president George H. W. Bush as a “RINO” — Republican in Name Only — because he agreed to a tax increase to combat a rising deficit.
After voters elected Democrat Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992, the Democrats passed the Motor Voter Act, which made it easier to register to vote. Republicans howled that Democrats were packing elections. Gingrich, then the House minority whip, angrily predicted that illegal immigrants would now register to vote, and a wave of 300,000 illegal voters would bolster the Democrats. Republicans wanted fewer voters, not more.
In 1993, Ed Rollins, a GOP operative, boasted that he successfully suppressed the black vote in New Jersey to elect a Republican governor. In 1994, unsuccessful Republican candidates for governor of Maryland and US senator from California charged that they had lost because of voter fraud. Republicans insisted that ineligible people, often immigrants, were voting, and those voters were tilting the scales for Democrats.
After the 1996 election, the Republican Congress launched a yearlong investigation into elections in Louisiana and California won by Democrats. The investigations ultimately proved that the Democrats — Senator Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Representative Loretta Sanchez in California — actually won fair and square, but they kept the issue of voter fraud in front of the country for a solid year. In Sanchez’s case, Republicans insisted without evidence that she owed her victory to non-citizens who had voted. As soon as the investigation ended, they introduced a bill requiring voters to prove they were citizens.
Meanwhile, a rare case in which voter fraud did occur became an excuse to strike African-American voters from the rolls. In Miami, the 1997 mayoral race was a mess. Independent Xavier L. Suarez beat a fellow Cuban-American, Republican Joe Carollo, in a chaotic election that was a national embarrassment and sent supporters of both men to jail. The following year, a Republican-dominated Florida legislature “reformed” voter fraud by outsourcing voter list maintenance to a private company. Voter rolls were purged, primarily of African-Americans. A later study by the US Commission on Civil Rights described an “extraordinarily high and inexcusable level of disenfranchisement” of black voters in Florida.
The 2000 presidential election came down to the vote in Florida, which hung on the outcome of 537 votes. But the story was not really about those 537 votes; it was about the countless voters, mostly Democrats and mostly African-Americans, purged illegally from the Florida rolls. It appeared that Ed Rollins was right. Voter suppression worked. Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but, thanks to Florida’s vote count, Republican George W. Bush was in the White House.
Actual voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. But voter suppression is increasingly widespread. In 2013, the Supreme Court took the federal government out of the business of protecting the vote by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and states quickly enacted new voter policies. “Exact match” ID policies hit people of color, who disproportionately fill out error-prone paper forms, and women, whose names often change with their marital status. Limiting voting places can shut out a whole population. Limiting voting machines suppresses the vote by making wait times discouragingly long.
The modern-day Republican Party likes voter suppression, because it shrinks the electorate. They have pushed the voter fraud myth because it enables them to win even when their policies are unpopular. It also reflects their worldview: Even if a majority believes the government should regulate business and promote social welfare, those voters should have no say in the nation’s government because their ideas are suspect, even un-American.
President Trump is not engaging with reality when he warns that Democrats are “radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela,” claims there is “substantial evidence of voter fraud,” and warns that watchers will be looking for cheaters. He is echoing a longstanding Republican myth that treats Democratic victories as illegitimate by definition.
It is not voter fraud that threatens American democracy. What threatens America is the belief that only one party has a right to power.
Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, is the author of “To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.”