Trump's Voter Fraud Distraction Could Lead To Voter Suppression
As President Trump continues to repeat the totally unsubstantiated claim that "millions" of people voted illegally during the presidential election, there's temptation to just brush it off.
Even some of the most experienced journalists say, "It's just a distraction."
But while we're at it, let's make another assumption: It's not a distraction.
Let's assume Trump is setting the stage for an investigation into the "problem," before a push to do something about it.
That push could potentially result in laws that would make it harder for many people to vote. More specifically, it would make it harder for many people to vote against him and his party.
To understand this assumption -- that Trump could be cunningly carving a path to voter suppression -- and its plausibility, one needs to understand four basic things about the past few years:
1. Republicans have already been engaging in voter suppression.
If you need an example of how Republican politicians favor voter laws, look no further than Wisconsin.
Since 2011, the Republican-controlled government in Wisconsin has battled against lawsuits as it tried to enforce voter restrictions, including a voter ID law and limits to early voting.
This past summer, before the presidential election, federal judge James D. Peterson struck down many of the restrictions, writing,
The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin's strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.
Early voting was maintained, but the ID stipulation remained. What followed was the lowest voter turnout in Wisconsin for a presidential election in 20 years.
While the 2012 election saw 70 percent of eligible voters participate, only 66 percent did in 2016. Donald Trump claimed a narrow and unexpected victory in Wisconsin.
There are other states that employed voter restrictions, like North Carolina, where voting laws were put in place in ways that "target African Americans with almost surgical precision," a federal appeals judge wrote. But Wisconsin's story underlines many of the important aspects you need to know about the pursuit of voting restrictions.
They are largely pursued by Republicans – ostensibly to fight against voter fraud – despite the fact that fraud has not been proven to significantly affect elections.
These laws place obstacles in the way of voting, resulting in a decrease of participation among mostly poor, black and young voters.
Those voters are most likely to vote for the Democratic party, which makes voter suppression an advantageous occurrence for Republican politicians, even if only coincidentally.
2. This is all possible because the Voting Rights Act was weakened.
The Voting Rights Act was the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. But it has not been operating in full effect over the past few years.
This is because a key component of the act was struck down in 2013, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder.
That case saw the Supreme Court rule (by a 5-to-4 decision) that states with a history of voter discrimination no longer had to seek federal clearance before enacting new voter laws.
The result? In places like North Carolina, Texas, Ohio and Arizona, new laws requiring different forms of ID to vote were passed, among other stipulations.
Many of these laws have been challenged in court. But Trump's claims could signal politicians to go for more, as Bernie Sanders expressed in fear on Tuesday.
.@BernieSanders on Trump's unsubstantiated voter fraud claims: "He is sending a message" to GOP "to go forward with voter suppression." pic.twitter.com/MWo2XwCWQ2 — ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) January 24, 2017
In an era during which the president repeatedly doubts the security of the electoral process, politicians might find impetus to ramp up the number of restrictions.
3. There are few things standing in Trump's way.
Perhaps more important than anything else is the fact that the conditions in 2017 are just right for Trump to make a push for new voter laws.
Trump, a Republican, is president. His chief strategist is a man who has floated the idea of restricting the power of voting to property owners.
Around the country, Republicans have taken over state governments from sea to shining sea, while Democrats only fully control five states.
The majority of Congress – which usually acts as a check against the president – is Republican. This could be why there has been little pushback against Trump's claims.
Then, there's the Justice Department. Under Obama, it sought to fight against strict voting laws.
But under Trump, the Justice Department is likely to be led by Sen. Jeff Sessions, who has stated he believes the Voting Rights Act is "intrusive."
At the judicial level, Trump now has the power to appoint federal judges. For perspective, the judge who fiercely critiqued Wisconsin's laws was appointed by former President Obama.
If Trump appoints judges who suit his politics, it's unlikely the same would occur.
Finally, Trump is set to appoint a member to the vacant seat in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court weighs in on important decisions like the one that weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
And given the old age of other Supreme Court justices – like 83-year-old Ruth Bader-Ginsburg – Trump could end up appointing more than one justice during the span of his presidency.
To put it simply, the political deck is stacked in Trump's favor.
4. Suppressing votes would help Trump maintain power.
Beyond the question of right or wrong, there is no question that enacting more of the types of laws Republicans have imposed on voters would be politically advantageous for Donald Trump.
If voting laws suppress voters who usually support the Democratic party, it would serve Trump well in the 2018 mid-term elections. These are the ones that will decide whether Congress remains Republican-controlled, and would bode well for Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
This brings us back to the assumptions. Trump's talk about voter fraud could indeed go nowhere, but to assume so would be to ignore the obvious.
President Trump to launch investigation into alleged voter fraud: “I want the voting process to be legitimate." https://t.co/zjjJ6vMqXU pic.twitter.com/h7zavlBWoa — ABC News (@ABC) January 26, 2017
It would ignore the fact that Republicans already have the tendency to pass voter laws. It would also ignore the fact that those who are the most vulnerable to voter suppression – black, Latino, poor and young voters – are not part of Trump's core constituency.