Republicans have an election fraud problem. No matter how hard they look, they can’t seem to find any. To say that voter fraud is vanishingly rare in this country is to overstate its frequency.
The crown jewel of right-wing fraud propaganda — the Heritage Foundation’s Election Fraud Database — only claims that there have been 1,332 instances of “proven voter fraud” in over 30 years. When you consider that there are thousands of local, state and federal elections every two years, 1,332 is a drop in the ocean, not a bucket.
For decades, the primary reason for spreading the myth of widespread voter fraud has been to justify the enactment of voter suppression laws. In state after state, Republicans rely on the fear of election fraud to support new laws that make voting more difficult. These laws, which predictably disproportionately impact minority voters, achieve Republican partisan electoral goals. As one federal court put it, these laws “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The 2020 election, however, created a new, pernicious use for the Republican voter fraud narrative. Having failed to win a majority of the vote, Republicans turned to fraud as the justification to argue to overturn the election. Fraud was transformed from a rationale to restrict voting rights into one aimed at undoing election results. In order to succeed, Republicans needed a compelling case that fraud was widespread. They failed to overturn the 2020 election because there was no evidence of virtually any election fraud, thus making the Republican claims to the contrary a very big lie.
In the wake of the election, Conservative legal organizations, think tanks and Republican legislatures recognized the need to increase the amount of provable fraud in the future. Unable to force voters to commit actual fraud, they settled upon redefining what constituted fraud in the first place. Over the last 10 months, Republican legislatures across the country have enacted new voting laws aimed at making ordinary activities illegal, thereby manufacturing fraud where none exists. This fake fraud is the cornerstone of many of the restrictive voting bills enacted this year.
Consider Georgia’s new voter suppression law. Handing a bottle of water to someone waiting in a long line to vote used to be an act of a good Samaritan. Now it is a crime. In previous elections, many Georgians relied on nonprofit organizations to send them an absentee ballot application and help return the application in time to receive a mail-in ballot. That too is now illegal. In contrast, Georgia expanded the ability of Republicans to mount frivolous mass challenges aimed at disenfranchising lawful voters and subjects the county election officials to sanctions if they fail to promptly adjudicate such challenges.
Each of these new provisions transforms normal — even exemplary — behavior into voter fraud. Provide water to the thirsty, fraud. Help citizens apply for absentee ballots, fraud. Prevent mass challenges to lawful voters, fraud. By manufacturing fraud from ordinary activity, Republicans create the foundation to challenge election results in 2022 and 2024. By manufacturing fake fraud, these new laws provide defeated candidates in 2022 and 2024 with the propaganda necessary to support their own Big Lies in the future.
It is not just Georgia. From Florida to Texas, Kansas to Iowa, Republican legislatures are manufacturing fraud out of legal activities and criminalizing what was once considered good civics. This nationwide effort by the GOP seeks to convert the image of elections from celebrations of self-governance to dark conspiracies. In the era of the Big Lie, Republicans seek to turn voting booths from sanctuaries of democracy into crime scenes.
Caught up in this web of fake fraud are ordinary citizens and well-meaning election officials who will now be branded the perpetrators of the fraud. Partisan prosecutors and the right-wing media will do their part to punish voters for voting and civic groups and election officials for helping. What will result is a picture of democracy that more closely resembles Picasso’s “Guernica” than John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence.”
The primary audience for this macabre spectacle will not be the courts. Republicans have learned that even the most conservative judges are hesitant to throw out an election based on manufactured evidence of fake fraud. Instead, their audience will be partisan officials responsible for counting ballots and certifying elections. These officials — ranging from county canvass board members to secretaries of state and governors — are responsible for tallying the polling place vote totals and creating a countywide or statewide certified election result.
In 2020, we saw Trump and his allies target these officials to persuade them not to certify the election results. Those efforts failed because there was simply not enough evidence of fraud to justify the overturning of a free and fair election. The Republican strategy is clear — manufacture fake fraud to undermine the results of free and fair elections. The question is whether our institutions are prepared to confront this new reality.
For starters, Democrats and those in the pro-democracy movement must aggressively challenge these new laws in the courts. We must not let new efforts to limit and needlessly complicate voting go unchallenged. For that reason, my legal team is currently suing Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Montana and Texas over their new laws aimed at restricting voting rights.
The media must adopt a pro-democracy perspective on its reporting on these laws. It is not good enough for the media to be objective and report on both sides as morally equal. The media needs to expose these laws that manufacture fraud and the right-wing’s fake fraud narrative.
Finally, Congress needs to enact new voting rights legislation that expands voting rights and protects the election certification process. Only Congress can enact national legislation to stamp out the scourge of fake fraud now infecting state election codes. The time is now for it to act.