In a 24-hour news cycle in which Donald Trump decreed the construction of a new border wall with Mexico and draft executive orders emerged suggesting an impending ban on refugees and the return of post-9/11 interrogation techniques, the president also hinted at more to come — from sending “the Feds” to Chicago to a Department of Justice investigation into voter fraud. White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed the latter on Thursday, telling reporters that the president plans to sign an executive order “to better understand” voter fraud and voter registration.
The latest development, coming from a sitting president who just won an election, might seem like an odd priority, but it could be the most dangerous of all. In fact, while the president’s insistence on delegitimizing an election that put him in the White House seemed ironic to some, Trump’s decision to double down once again on one of his favorite and most demonstrably false lies — that millions of voters illegally cast ballots on November 8 — should spell trouble to anyone hoping this election is the last one he wins.
Trump, a sore loser even in victory, might have been simply obsessing over the 2.8 million ballots by which he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton when he announced Wednesday that he would seek “a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD,” which remains virtually non-existent. Although Trump is a master of political distraction, his often preposterous tweets have also been a reliable indicator of policies to come.
In this case, the second half of his statement — “depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!” — promises a serious threat to democracy and one Trump is hardly the first to propose or implement.
As is customary for Trump, neither facts nor consistency informed the latest announcement. In December, after Green Party candidate Jill Stein filed for a recount in three states, Trump’s own team contradicted his many tweets and said in a statement that “all available evidence suggests the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake” (no word, then, about Russian interference.) Out of 135 million votes cast on November 8, only four cases of voter fraud were documented. And while Trump railed against the millions of votes purportedly cast by undocumented immigrants, the dead, or those registered in more than one state, two of the known cases of individuals registered in more than one state involved his own adviser Steve Bannon, who until Wednesday was registered to vote in New York and in Florida, and his daughter Tiffany, who was registered in both New York and Pennsylvania. The country’s voter registration system is both inaccurate and inefficient, and it’s not uncommon for people to be registered in more than one state or even for dead individuals to remain on the rolls. But that doesn’t mean there is any substantial evidence people with multiple registrations are casting multiple votes, or that the dead are casting any.
But the problem with Trump’s propensity for falsehood is that so far it hasn’t stopped him from pushing policies based on lies. In this case, as Trump himself warned, we should expect the lie to translate into further restrictions of voting rights that have already been significantly curtailed in recent years.
“These allegations of voter fraud are unfounded, but used as a stage for states around the country to erect laws and restrictions that will make it harder for Americans to vote,” Kristen Clarke, president of the National Lawyers’ Committee, told The Intercept. “There is no evidence millions of people illegally cast ballots in the November election but there is tremendous evidence of ongoing voter discrimination and voter suppression.”
The investigation Trump is calling for wouldn’t be the first attempt to prove voter fraud, which for years has been a favorite argument of those wishing to limit democratic participation. But investigation after investigation has failed to prove fraud. One study found 31 credible instances of voter impersonation out of one billion votes cast.
Even some Republicans called out Trump’s lie on Wednesday. “We conducted a review 4 years ago in Ohio & already have a statewide review of 2016 election underway,” Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted tweeted in response to the president. “Easy to vote, hard to cheat.” In fact, voting rights advocates might disagree with Husted on the second half of his statement, because Ohio is one of several states that attempted to purge thousands of eligible voters from the rolls in the past, making voting rather difficult for mostly poor and black residents of the state.
But with an administration that has made “alternative facts” the baseline of its policies, there’s no guarantee about what a Trump’s DOJ investigation might be able to produce. Particularly if that effort were led by Sen. Jeff Sessions, who if confirmed would be the first attorney general who has called the Voting Rights Act “an intrusive piece of legislation.” Pressed by Senator Al Franken during his recent confirmation hearing, Sessions declined to disavow Trump’s claims and said instead that he believes, “we regularly have fraudulent activities occur during election cycles.”
“Senator Sessions’ past record demonstrates that he is capable of carrying out the kind of faux fraud prosecution contemplated by the president,” Clarke said, pointing to Sessions’s troubling record on voting rights, including his failed 1985 prosecution, as U.S. attorney in Alabama, of black voting rights activists over baseless accusations of voter fraud.
“Those prosecutions had the impact of chilling minority voter participation,” said Clarke. “The president’s statements only underscore the fact that Senator Sessions is the wrong person to lead the Justice Department.”
In fact, Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud are part of a well-established tradition of voter discrimination efforts that has historically targeted minorities.
“This voter fraud lie has been used to disenfranchise black voters for the last 150 years,” Leah Aden, a senior counsel with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, told The Intercept, citing a renewed crackdown on voting rights following historic black voter turnout in 2008 and 2012, as well as the 2010 census revealing the country’s transformed demographics. “This voter fraud lie is a dangerous distraction from the voter suppression schemes that have been in place for the past several years.”
Voter suppression works. In Wisconsin, for instance, which Trump won by 22,000 votes, voter turnout hit a 20-year low as many poor and black residents stayed home. But while that’s undoubtedly the result of a complex set of reasons — not the least, deepening disillusion and a lack of enthusiasm for the available options on the ballot — Wisconsin was also one of 14 states that this year implemented new voting restrictions for the first time, including photo ID requirements and restrictions on early voting. Those voter suppression schemes are likely to multiply as states seeking to restrict access to the ballots are emboldened by the President’s statements.
Many voting rights advocates, who have been battling the fallout from a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted a major component of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, are now bracing for more attacks on the landmark civil rights legislation. The imminent announcement of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, who will presumably reflect his opinions, has many worried that remaining provisions of the act may also come under threat.
“The Voting Rights Act is at risk of being further narrowed; there are cases making their way up to the Supreme Court as we speak,” Denise Lieberman, co-director of Advancement Project’s power and democracy program, told The Intercept. Section 2 of the Act, in particular, which prohibits voting practices nationwide that discriminate on the basis of race, has already come under challenge in Texas and North Carolina, she added, noting that more challenges are likely to come in the next years.
“We know that we’re likely to face ongoing attacks on the right to vote with this administration,” said Lieberman. “We have to brace ourselves and know that those attacks are not grounded in facts but in a strategy that seeks to squash people’s voices.”