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President Trump’s illegal-voter paranoia is a fantasy. But the consequences are real.

Republicans bolstered the voter-fraud myth for years; now they have a president who believes it.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump casts his vote on Election Day at PS 59 November 8, 2016 in New York City. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s lies have consequences.

This might seem self-evident: When the president of the United States says, for example, that he would have won the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election if not for “3 to 5 million” votes illegally cast by unauthorized immigrants — something he reportedly told congressional leaders at dinner Monday — it inevitably makes it harder to build the shared basis of facts that people in a democracy need for collective decision-making.

But it’s also true in a more immediate way: the fantasies might inspire very real policy responses, with very real consequences. The investigations that the Trump DOJ could engage in to discourage “illegal voting,” not to mention the support they could offer states and local jurisdictions attempting to restrict voter access, would make it harder for people to vote legally. And a supposed conspiracy to cast millions of illegal votes would justify an extremely vigorous response indeed.

Elected officials in the Republican party have been making the case that, without sufficient protections against voter fraud, millions of people could be voting illegally and America wouldn’t have any idea. Trump is coming to the conclusion that they actually did — without any evidence and a claim seemingly rooted in a fake Infowars report.

This doesn’t mean that Trump is merely doing what other Republicans have done, however. Quite the opposite. Trump’s walking on ground they’ve prepared for him, but he’s severing the last connection of policy to reality — giving him the full power of the United States government without any apparent fealty to facts.

When Republicans have talked about the risk of voter fraud but avoided outright conspiratorial lies about it happening, they retained some link between policy and reality. Their attempts at voting restrictions often didn’t turn up the fraud they warned was possible, but nor did they punish real people for invented crimes.

Donald Trump’s tendency to ignore the carefully manicured distinctions other Republicans have made, between encouraging paranoia and embodying it, leaves no quarter for reality in policymaking. It gives his government free rein to pursue phantoms — and makes it all the more likely real people will be hurt.

Trump’s indulging in the longstanding myth of the noncitizen voter

Before his inauguration, Trump made passing references to 3 million votes getting cast illegally in the presidential election. In his post-inauguration meeting with congressional leaders, though, Trump got more specific: according to the Associated Press, the president said “he would have won the popular vote in the 2016 election if 3 million to 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally hadn’t voted.”

Just hanging out, joking about 3 to 5 million imaginary illegal votes!
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty

The idea that unauthorized immigrants routinely vote in elections is a bugbear of occasional Trump adviser (and Kansas Secretary of State) Kris Kobach. But the idea that 3 million “illegal aliens” voted in 2016 is a product of the right-wing internet.

In some versions of the story that ricocheted around sites like Infowars in the wake of the election, the illegal votes had been cast because some states didn’t require ID to vote. In other versions, they’d been cast in California because of the state’s “motor voter” law automatically registering citizens to vote when they applied for drivers’ licenses — since California also allows unauthorized immigrants to receive drivers’ licenses, many voting hawks have misunderstood the law as signing up unauthorized immigrants to vote.

The story was based on a pair of tweets from a Republican operative, who hasn’t exactly shown his work as to how he got this information. But it came to broader attention thanks to a post on Infowars — a site Trump’s known to repeat the claims of. It’s not clear whether Trump got the claim from Infowars in particular (his team didn’t cite Infowars specifically when asked about it Monday). But the idea of “3 million illegal voters” bears a suggestively strong similarity to the other study that Trump’s team did cite Monday: a 2014 study claiming that as many as 2.9 million noncitizens of the US might be registered to vote.

Of course, this study doesn’t exactly say what the Trump camp wants it to say, either — one of its authors, Jesse Richman of Old Dominion University, wrote in October that “on the right there has been a tendency to misread our results as proof of massive voter fraud, which we don’t think they are.” Instead, like Pew, a study that showed the hypothetical potential for wrongdoing was taken as evidence of it.

Richman and his colleagues do believe that noncitizen voting happens sometimes, which represents a minority view in political science — the 2014 study was strenuously criticized by the people who conducted the original research on which the study was based. (The papers’ critics argue that most of the self-reported “noncitizens” could just be citizens who screwed up their survey responses.)

But even they aren’t claiming that it’s terribly common. In fact, according to one of their datasets, nearly 90 percent of the voters who claimed not to be citizens in 2012 didn’t actually turn out to vote — in another dataset, half of all noncitizens asked why they didn’t vote pointed out that because they weren’t citizens they literally couldn’t.

On the occasions when Republican state governments have tried to identify and purge noncitizen voters, they’ve found something similar: they identify a lot of voters as potential lawbreakers, but find few to no instances of noncitizens actually voting.

The Associated Press summarized one representative effort from Colorado’s secretary of state in 2012:

Last year, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler estimated 11,805 noncitizens were on the state rolls. But the number got smaller. After his office sent letters to 3,903 registered voters questioning their status, the number of noncitizens is now 141, based on checks using federal immigration database. Of the 141, he said 35 voted in the past.

In the hands of WorldNetDaily, though, Gessler’s conclusions were outright ignored — and his inquiry into “noncitizen voters” was turned into an investigation of “illegals registered to vote.” So when they wrote a December 2012 article asking “Did Barack Obama Steal the 2012 Election?” they raised the possibility that thousands of unauthorized immigrants had voted illegally for Obama in the state — and never debunked it.

Trump merely took this idea to the next step and actually claimed the voting actually happened.

The fear with policy consequences: the “inner city” Democratic machine will take advantage of lenient voting laws

When Trump made a reference to “three million illegal votes” in a tweet after the election, his transition team wasn’t able to explain exactly where Trump got the information that millions of people had voted illegally in 2016. Instead, they offered evidence that in states with lenient voting laws, millions of people could.

It’s a pretty common slippage among defenders of stricter voter ID laws — partly because evidence that people could vote illegally, since it’s based on a hypothetical, is more than a little easier to find.

One study cited by the Trump transition team (and by Trump himself in a similar context before the election) is a 2012 Pew Center on the States report showing that “more than 1.8 million deceased individuals are registered as voters.”

To Pew, the point of that report was to argue for states to modernize their voting systems so they didn’t have voter rolls clogged up with 1.8 million dead and useless records — the concern wasn’t that people might try to cast extra votes on behalf of the dead, but that those dead voters represented the inaccuracy and inefficiency of the system as a whole.

To some Republicans, though, including the president of the United States, it was a recipe for widespread voter fraud on behalf of the Democratic Party. When Trump cited the Pew study at an October rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, he turned it into a lie about “people that died 10 years ago are still voting” — and continued, suggestively, “but I have a feeling they’re not gonna vote for me.”

The stereotype of the “cemetery vote” — with its roots in the machine politics of Chicago — had the benefit of playing to both general Trumpist fears about a “rigged system” and corrupt Democrats, and racist concerns about the legitimacy of the nonwhite vote. (In 2016, a reference to “Chicago” doesn’t evoke the Irish-American machine of 1960, where the “cemetery vote” trope originated, but the implicitly black “inner city” — a stereotypical place of widespread violence and suspiciously high voter participation.)

Battleground State Of Ohio Key To Winning Presidency For Candidates
The mystery voter bus??
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The most persistent myth: the bus that transports dozens of voters “from poll to poll” to vote for Democrats multiple times over the course of the day — implicitly because, without required voter ID, they’re able to steal the identities of the dead.

The myth of the bus is at least several election cycles old. In 2010, a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in Arizona claimed that immigrants were being bused over the border to vote; in 2016, conservative activist and propagandist James O’Keefe released a video that conservative websites claimed was “proof” that Democrats bus voters from poll to poll (the reference appeared to be to a shuttle bus taking neighborhood residents to a single polling place, not to people being shuttled to multiple polling places to vote multiple times).

The bus myth is actually older than the studies the Trump team cites. But it’s the root of the fear of voter fraud among the Republican base — a fear fanned explicitly by conspiracy sites like WorldNetDaily and Trump favorite Infowars, and tacitly by Republican elected officials pushing for stricter voter ID laws.

Most Republican elected officials are careful not to go so far as to completely endorse the myth of the mystery bus — or anything else that claims that voter fraud isn’t just potential but epidemic. But they don’t deny such claims when sites like WorldNetDaily make them — allowing conspiracy theories to flourish in the gaps. Donald Trump makes no such distinctions. Trump simply took his cues from the websites rather than the officials.

The symbiotic relationship between paranoia and policy

In the past, Republicans have been able to allow these theories to spread without endorsing them.

Mitt Romney didn’t echo WorldNetDaily’s claims the way Donald Trump, intentionally or not, echoed Infowars. But he did voice support for voter ID laws while campaigning in Wisconsin — the state where conservative activists claimed to have seen the phantom multiple-voter bus during Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election the same year.

Without bus-level paranoia, the case for voter ID laws simply isn’t as strong. If you truly believe that 1.9 million noncitizens are trying to vote in US elections — and therefore that stricter voter ID laws are needed to stop them — Trump’s position is the one that makes more sense.

People who believe that voter fraud is happening already are likely to see it as very important that their state pass a voter ID law, even if politicians are only saying out loud that the danger is hypothetically there.

By encouraging conspiracy theories without endorsing them, politicians prepare the ground for a false claim like Trump’s. If voting restrictions are passed, politicians can take credit for “preventing” the widespread illegal voting that never would have happened to begin with; if they aren’t passed, politicians can keep warning that fraud is possible without dredging up evidence. The danger is that it winds up undermining belief in the democratic process.

Sessions, is already unlikely to enforce the federal Voting Rights Act against state and local restrictions on voting. Not only did Sessions support the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that severely curtailed the federal government’s power to restrain state and local voting restrictions, but he claimed that the government of Shelby County, Alabama (the plaintiffs in the case) “has never had a history of denying voters” — even, presumably, under Jim Crow. So the likely future Department of Justice, headed by Sessions, won’t do anything to stop voter ID laws, and may well try to encourage states to pass them.

Donald Trump Holds Weekend Meetings In Bedminster, NJ
Laying the groundwork for an assault on voting?
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Because the “illegal voters” myth is in part an immigration myth, the Trump administration can actually go further than that. Several states’ efforts to purge “illegal voters” from state rolls — including Colorado, Florida, Iowa, and North Carolina — used a federal database of immigrants (the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements database, used to identify which immigrants are eligible for social services) to see if anyone listed as a noncitizen was also registered to vote.

The SAVE database wasn’t designed for this, and under the Obama administration, DHS warned state governments that it could mistakenly flag immigrants who’d since become US citizens — which is exactly what happened. But the Trump administration may not feel any compunction about using an immigration database for voting purposes.

In fact, Kobach (who’s led both fearmongering about immigrant voters and attempts to purge voter rolls in his home state) appeared to suggest some sort of use of the Department of Homeland Security to crack down on voter fraud when he met with Trump in November.

It’s possible that the SAVE database — or whatever measure the Trump administration might use takes to combat the imaginary scourge of illegal voting — will result in very few people actually being purged from voter rolls, and the White House will just lie again and say that it did. Maybe, politically, there won’t be that much of a difference between the typical Republican “might” on voter fraud and Trump’s leap to “is.”

But it’s also possible that, having crossed that line, the Trump administration will feel the need to actually deliver 3 million purged voters. If it creates such an impossible accountability for itself, who knows what it might do to deliver.