During the final Presidential debate of the 2016 election, then candidate Donald Trump alarmed pundits and politicians alike as he declined to confirm whether or not he would accept the results of the election should he lose, claiming that the nation’s electoral systems were rigged against him. Even weeks after his upset victory via the Electoral College, President-elect Trump felt compelled to make the baseless assertion that millions of votes cast illegally on election day were to blame for Hillary Clinton’s win of the popular vote. Now, one could certainly argue that such claims are simply keeping in tradition with Trump’s posturing as a populist outsider prepared to challenge the authority of the Washington establishment. However, since the early stages of his administration, President Trump has undertaken concrete and unprecedented efforts to expose the allegedly widespread crisis of voter fraud across the United States- efforts that move far beyond the realm of mere rhetorical bluster.
In 2017, President Trump created via executive order the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, charged with investigating allegations of voter fraud across the United States. The Commission, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence but spearheaded by vice chairman, and then Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, faced swift condemnation from many other Secretaries of State and voting rights activists. The short-lived Commission was shut down several months after its inception in January 2018, with President Trump and Kris Kobach citing the high volume of lawsuits that were apparently restricting the Commission’s ability to operate. The most vocal critics of the Commission, most notably Maine Secretary of State, Matthew Dunlap, himself an equal member of the Commission, dismissed this reasoning for the disbanding of the Commission as ridiculous. Dunlap filed a lawsuit against the Commission, claiming that Kobach was “walling off” him and fellow members from the proceedings of and internal documents being produced by the Commission. Dunlap asserts that the entire Commission was a partisan political exercise designed to uncover evidence of President Trump’s false claim that millions of illegal votes were cast during the 2016 election. Indeed, documents released after the dissolving of the Commission indicated absolutely no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the United States.
Thus the question arises: how does a short-lived Commission that’s own findings contradict the claims of the President constitute a threat to American democracy? The danger is that giving the theory of endemic voter fraud an official platform in our democratic institutions lends credence to political actors who seek to engage in voter suppression. Kris Kobach himself, during his tenure as Kansas Secretary of State, used his authority to champion measures to counteract election fraud through the use of Voter ID requirements. A federal court viewed Kobach’s voter restrictions as so stringent that some of his measures were struck down, citing the fact that nearly 18,000 Kansans had been unable to cast votes as a direct consequence of the new restrictions. Voter suppression efforts and fraudulent claims of “millions of illegal votes” work in tandem to endanger democracy. As Rustow argues, “In order that rulers and policies may freely change, the boundaries must endure, the composition of the citizenry be continuous.” Voter ID laws erode these stable boundaries by disproportionately targeting the poor, communities of color, and young voters, thereby excluding them from the “composition of the citizenry” and electorate. When significant portions of the voting population are deprived of their right to determine their representation, Americans may become disillusioned with our democratic institutions. Additionally, President Trump’s recklessly false claim that millions of illegal votes were cast against him to tip the popular vote in favor of Hillary Clinton disrupts a central tenet of American political discourse: mutual toleration. In their novel, How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt assert that a stable democracy requires that political opponents recognize, tolerate, one another as equally legitimate political actors who can both viably compete for power and govern the people. President Trump’s past refusal to recognize a potential electoral victory by Hillary Clinton and his continued contention that her popular vote margins are fundamentally illegitimate severely undermines this crucial norm that has facilitated the peaceful transition of power in the United States for centuries.
As the nation enters the next presidential election cycle, it’s critical that we distinguish President Trump’s continued fraudulent declarations of rampant electoral corruption from his typical inflammatory rhetoric. The fomentation of this debunked myth is poisonous to American democracy by validating efforts to further disenfranchise our most marginalized communities and eroding confidence in the very institution that forms the bedrock of holding our government accountable: free and fair elections.
Photo by Frederic J. Brown, AFP, Creative Commons Zero License