This presidential election has featured the Republican nominee talking about the size of his manly member on national TV and about grabbing women by the crotch on video. He has also endorsed torture, mass deportations, a 2,000-mile border wall, war crimes, nuclear proliferation, a ban on Muslims and jailing his opponent — cheered on wildly by his rapturous supporters.
All of this is a terrible commentary on the state of American democracy. But as hard as it is to believe, something even more disturbing is happening. Yesterday morning Politico reported that 41 percent of registered voters believe that the election could be "stolen" from Republican Donald Trump because of voter fraud. That number rises to 71 percent among Republicans.
Trump has been pushing this theme ever since his poll numbers started slipping. His TV surrogates and campaign advisers started out spinning his charges as more or less metaphorical, saying that he meant the media was on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's side and therefore "rigging" the election. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich said, "The complaint isn't at the polling level; it's at the news media level." And Trump's running mate Mike Pence explained, "The American people are tired of the biased media. That's where the sense of a rigged election goes." Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani claimed Trump had "never talked about cheating at the polling place."
That didn't last long. Trump himself has recently made it clear that he thinks the election is literally going to be stolen from him at the ballot box. On Monday night in Green Bay, Wisconsin, he said:
They even want to try to rig the election at the polling booths. Believe me, there's a lot going on. Do you ever hear these people? They say there's nothing going on? People that have died 10 years ago are still voting. Illegal immigrants are voting. Where are the street smarts of some of these politicians?
"Street smarts" or delusion? Studies show this is utter nonsense. There have only been 31 credible instances of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014.
A couple of weeks ago in Michigan, Trump gave some explicit instructions to his followers.
Here's the full Trump riff on voter fraud from this evening in Novi. Mich., in which he urges his supporter to monitor polling places. pic.twitter.com/S3Vt1TzOvW
— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) Sept. 30, 2016
For obvious reasons, Trump has a particular habit of saying these things to his white audiences in proximity to urban areas with large numbers of people of color.
Republican elections lawyer Ben Ginsburg was on MSNBC Monday, explaining that since there are 8,000 to 9,000 different jurisdictions across the United States that count ballots in diverse ways it's important that people take advantage of state law "to be able to see exactly what's going on in a polling place." He cited Giuliani's method of sending in lawyers to every precinct to challenge the votes and advised Trump to do that also.
On the same show, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele agreed that Democrats "largely control polling places in major metropolitan areas," naming the predominantly African-American Prince George's County, Maryland, as a prime example and exhorting Republicans to "get off their behinds to get out there to do election judging."
The Boston Globe recently quoted a Trump voter declaring how he planned to help out:
Trump said to watch your precincts. I’m going to go, for sure. I’ll look for . . . well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American. I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.
Actually, making people "a little bit nervous" at polling places is illegal. It's called voter intimidation.
Some Republican leaders have tried to reassure voters that the election will not be stolen, but it's too little, too late. After all, Republicans have been trying to manipulate elections for decades going all the way back to Operation Eagle Eye during the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign when future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was a young lawyer who allegedly intimidated black and Latino voters in Arizona. Then, as now, this was done in the name of preventing unauthorized people from voting.
In the 1980s, there were consent decrees in place all over the country as various local arms of the GOP got caught violating federal election laws by trying to suppress minority votes. In the wake of Jesse Jackson's highly successful voter registration drives, Republicans instigated a campaign to purge voter rolls in African-American communities throughout the South and urban areas. They professionalized and nationalized their operation by recruiting lawyers and training them in the election laws of different jurisdictions so they could more efficiently challenge Democratic votes.
By the 2000 election they had hundreds of trained election lawyers at the ready and they all swooped in on Florida when Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore asked for a recount. (The state party under Jeb Bush had already taken care of the purge of African-Americans from the voter rolls, which helped make it so close.) Ironically, the chief justice of the Supreme Court was William Rehnquist and naturally he cast the deciding vote to stop the recount and hand the election to George W. Bush.
Immediately upon taking office, Republicans began to work on their next big vote suppression project. As Ari Berman reported in the Nation:
The incoming Bush administration prioritized prosecutions of voter fraud over investigations into voter disenfranchisement — longtime civil-rights lawyers were forced out of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, U.S. Attorneys were fired for refusing to pursue bogus fraud cases, and the first strict voter-ID laws were passed by Republican legislatures. The Bush Justice Department launched a five-year investigation into alleged voter-fraud abuses.
This will be the first presidential election in 50 years without the protections of the Voting Rights Act, which the conservative majority of the Supreme Court (including three members who voted to give the election to George W. Bush in 2000, and two more who worked on the recount on the behalf of the GOP) told America that there was no more need for such protections since we were past those ugly days of voter suppression. Seventeen states have new voting restrictions in place.
This is what's known as "rigging elections." Trump just got a little bit confused about who's doing the rigging. The Republicans have been at it for a very long time.