GOP planning to use Trump’s fraud lies to make it harder to vote — could it backfire?

Republicans want to make voting harder despite no evidence of widespread fraud. It could blow up in their faces

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published December 3, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham (photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham (photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

President Trump and his allies failed to restrict voting by mail ahead of the election and have waged a highly unsuccessful legal battle to subvert the results of the vote. But some Republican lawmakers are seizing on the president's baseless claims in an attempt to make it harder to vote in future elections.

Trump and his allies have been unable to produce a shred of evidence to support their unfounded claims of widespread fraud but multiple polls have found that a majority of Republican voters nonetheless believe that Joe Biden's victory was tainted by fraud. Attorney General Bill Barr said Tuesday that the Justice Department has likewise found no evidence of widespread fraud, drawing attacks from the Trump campaign. With Trump supporters leaning heavily on election officials and elected representatives to back the president's unsubstantiated claims, most Republican lawmakers have resisted calling on Trump to withdraw his wild allegations or even acknowledge that Biden won the election. Since nothing can be done now to reverse the result of the election, some Republican lawmakers are looking ahead to make it harder to vote in future races.

"Claims of fraud have often been the purported predicate for restrictions on voting, since at least the mid-19th century," Justin Levitt, a constitutional law expert at Loyola Law School, told Salon. "I wouldn't expect there to be much of a connection between the fraud asserted and the 'solution' proposed," he added.

"On the rare occasions when the predicate is specific, the legislative 'solution' isn't often tailored to the specific 'problem,'" Levitt explained. He said he doesn't expect Republicans to focus on "any individual assertion of fraud," but rather on "the generic notion that it's out there somewhere."

The widespread Republican belief that voting damages their political prospects is strange, given that the GOP did exceptionally well in down-ballot races despite Trump's defeat.

"If we don't do something about voting by mail, we're going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country," Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News early in November, echoing similar claims made by the president. Graham, who reportedly pressured Georgia officials to toss out legal ballots, said he wants his committee to investigate mail voting.

Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, and some Republican legislators in Michigan have called for "election reforms," which has typically been GOP code for tighter voting restrictions. Republicans in the state have criticized Michigan's new same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting.

In Wisconsin, where Republicans have worked to make it harder to vote for the last decade, legislative leaders have called for an investigation into "how the election was administrated" and have repeatedly raised concerns about mail-in ballots despite no evidence of fraud. Former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has claimed that Trump has a "valid case" against the state's election laws and, though he said he does not see an immediate court remedy, called for lawmakers to "take action to restore integrity of the voting process" even beyond the voter ID law Walker signed while in office.

In Pennsylvania, state Republican lawmakers have tried to convince courts to throw out late-arriving mail-in ballots for months and have raised questions about the delayed counting of mail-in ballots — a problem created in the first place because Republicans blocked election officials from starting to count ballots before Election Day. Republican lawmakers have called for a committee to investigate the unfounded fraud claims, citing "calls and emails and other messages from constituents who are confused and outraged by the circumstances surrounding this election."

Some Georgia lawmakers have called on the state to tighten its residency requirements, which one constitutional expert called "grotesquely un-democratic, an abuse of power and a constitutionally suspect form of racial discrimination." Alhough the state legislature is unlikely to change the rules ahead of Georgia's Senate runoff elections next month, the state is likely to press forward with numerous reforms in the coming months.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who has drawn praise from Democrats for standing up to Trump's attacks, has already proposed a series of reforms that would allow his office to intervene in counties with "systemic ongoing problems" and challenge voters suspected of living at an address other than the one on their registration. Raffensperger also wants to tighten absentee ballot rules and require voters to mail a copy of their voter ID with their ballots. Some Republicans have urged him to go further, calling for an end to "no excuse" absentee voting in the state. Again, this is a curious move since Republicans did well in the state's elections and Raffensperger himself said that Trump likely "depressed" his own turnout by attacking mail-in voting.

"It's gonna be voter suppression in the way that it seems innocuous when you start, but in the end, it's going to absolutely damp down the amount of people who vote and how they vote," Democratic House Minority Leader James Beverly told a local news outlet. "It's going to make barriers of entry too extreme and folks will give up, or they may not have the resources to do some of the things I think he is going to do."

The efforts have not been limited to states that Biden won. In Mississippi, which Trump won by about 16 points, Gov. Tate Reeves vowed that he would never allow "universal mail-in voting and no-excuse early voting" while he's in office. The Mississippi branch of the NAACP accused the Republican of pushing "old and outdated policies and practices aimed to suppress the vote."

In Texas, where Republican lawmakers successfully limited mail-in voting and ballot drop-off sites ahead of the election, the GOP won big amid record turnout. But in the weeks since the election, Republican lawmakers have continued to push for restrictions on voting, including bills that would bar election officials from sending mail ballot applications to all registered voters, and lawsuits that challenge the state's ballot drop-off rules.

"Texas Republicans are likely to move forward with efforts to restrict both mail and in-person early voting," Robert Stein, a voting expert at Rice University, told Salon. "I suspect there will be some efforts to further restrict in-person early voting. … I expect to see efforts to codify limits on where and when mail ballots can be returned."

Ironically, it is Republican success in an election where nearly half of voters cast ballots by mail that now puts the party in position to impose sweeping new restrictions on voting. The GOP similarly used its state-level wins in the 2010 "Tea Party wave" to pass voter ID laws, restrict early and mail voting, and make it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions in 25 states, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Along with control over the majority of state legislatures and voting laws, Republicans will also have a massive advantage when it comes to redistricting following this year's census. Republican lawmakers, who swept nearly every state where control of redistricting was at stake, will have the power to redraw 188 congressional districts while Democrats will have control over just 73 districts, not to mention state and local legislative districts.

But some election experts suggest that attempts to restrict voting could still backfire on Republicans.

"Recent polling shows that many of the innovations adopted for the 2020 election are popular with voters of all partisan persuasions, making some changes potentially difficult," Stein said. "There is ample evidence that states that attempt to adopt restrictive election laws produce a backlash effect, especially among nonwhite voters. The adoption of these laws provides Democrats with a means of mobilizing voters of color and younger voters."

Levitt agreed that there is little reason to believe that voting restrictions would help Republicans.

"At least some accounts of the election suggest that Trump's consistent disparagement of mail-in voting actually depressed Republican turnout in states like Georgia, where it might have made a difference," he said. "In non-pandemic times, it's not at all clear to me that restricting mail-in voting would hurt Democrats more than Republicans."

Levitt added that the turnout trends may ultimately dissuade some Republicans from backing further restrictions.

"I'm not ready to assume, for example, that the most widely publicized conspiracy theory about fraud will actually lead to restrictive legislation," he said. "We'll have to wait for the new legislative sessions to see what picks up steam."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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