Donald Trump made headlines at last night’s debate by refusing to acknowledge the fundamental legitimacy of the American electoral system, threatening to pursue his complaints about a "rigged" political process up to Election Day and beyond. This has Republicans despondent about Trump’s performance and worried about their long-term consequences. Their plan, after Trump loses, is to try to pick up the pieces, block Democratic legislation, and beat Clinton in 2020 — not tear down the entire fabric of American democracy.
But Republicans pushing back on Trump’s rigged talk aren’t owning up to their role in laying the groundwork for this. Trump is simply taking seriously their own longstanding strategy on voter ID laws and other aspects of election procedure.
Voter fraud is a key rationale for GOP election rules
When Republicans run state governments, they typically take advantage of state control over election administration to change the rules around what kind of ID you need in order to vote. The general idea is to try to do this in ways that shift the electorate in a more GOP-friendly direction.
In Texas, for example, a gun permit counts as a valid form of identification, but a student ID does not. The reason, obviously, is that gun owners are usually Republicans while college students are usually Democrats. Best practices for writing voter ID laws that will help Republicans win election are provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other business groups who like it when Republicans win because Republicans tend to favor lower taxes and more business-friendly regulatory regimes.
The problem with this is that you can’t say the purpose of your voter ID regime is to tilt the partisan balance of power in elections. And you really can’t say that the purpose is specifically to reduce the number of black and Latino people who vote, because that will get your law struck down as unconstitutional.
So the thing to say is that you are trying to cut down on in-person voter fraud, a scenario in which I show up at a polling place where I am not eligible to vote and impersonate a different person who has either not voted yet or who is on the rolls improperly. Sophisticated political observers understand that this is bullshit — just something politicians say, like when Democrats vaguely invoke the Citizens United decision as the root of all campaign finance evil. It’s not a serious claim that in-person voter fraud is a large problem in the United States.
But you can see why a normal person might take it seriously and draw the exact conclusion Trump is making explicit — there is widespread voter fraud in the United States and it’s a huge problem.
Ordinary Republicans likely believe GOP rhetoric on voter fraud
This is what makes the efforts of Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus, and other Republican leaders to bat down Donald Trump’s threat to not concede the election so difficult.
After all, the kind of strict voter ID laws that Republican legislatures like to pass are not in effect in all of America’s states.
Indeed, several of the strictest ones have been struck down as unconstitutional by recent court decisions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried and failed to get a national voter ID law incorporated into immigration legislation.
A sensible rank-and-file Republican who thinks his party’s elected officials are mostly good people mostly working to pass good laws is going to conclude that thanks to liberal judges and Democratic Party politicians, there is now a big voter fraud problem in many parts of the country.
Today, Republican elected officials are freaking out about Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric. But he is only making explicit what’s been implicit in their own words.
Republicans should consider admitting the truth
The boring truth is that the reason mainstream Republican Party elected officials are confident the election will not be rigged is that they know in-person voter fraud is a trivially rare occurrence.
Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt has tracked credible allegations of in-person voter impersonation for years, finding 35 total credible allegations between 2000 and 2014, when more than 800 million ballots were cast in national general elections, and hundreds of millions more were cast in primary, municipal, special, and other elections.
As Chris Ashby, a Republican election lawyer, writes, America has "a system of voting that is one of the cleanest and best in the world — in which all citizens should have faith and confidence."
The problem is that Republican Party politicians have had difficulty admitting this in recent years. They don’t actually think elections are being stolen through voter fraud, and they don’t engage in Trump-esque insinuations and violations of democratic norms. But they do say that voter fraud is a huge problem and that the United States does not have adequate legal protections in place to block it. That isn’t true, and their own actions and adherence to democratic norms shows they know it isn’t true, but it does provide a viable pretext for voter ID laws that they favor for separate reasons.
Faced with a looming potential crisis in the form of Trump potentially refusing to concede the legitimacy of the election, it’s about time they consider telling the truth.