Donald Trump’s tweets yesterday about “the millions of people who voted illegally in 2016” and “serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California” cannot be dismissed as just another Twitter meltdown from the president-elect. (It goes without saying that Trump’s claims are categorically false.)
His conspiracy theories about rigged elections during the presidential race were meant to delegitimize the possibility of Hillary Clinton’s election. But now that he’s won the election we have to take his words far more seriously. He will appoint the next attorney general, at least one Supreme Court justice and thousands of positions in the federal government. His lies about the prevalence of voter fraud are a prelude to the massive voter suppression Trump and his allies in the GOP are about to unleash.
Unlike his Democratic and Republican predecessors, Trump has little respect for the institutions that preserve American democracy, whether it’s freedom of the press or the right to vote. As I wrote in The Nation recently:
Trump undermined the basic tenets of democracy in ways unseen by any previous presidential nominee. He said he might refuse to accept the outcome of the election if things didn’t go his way; his supporters explicitly called for “racial profiling” at the polls; and his campaign openly boasted that “we have three major voter-suppression operations under way” to reduce turnout among African Americans, young women, and liberals.
We can already glimpse how a Trump administration will undermine voting rights, based on the people he nominated to top positions, those he has advising him, and his own statements.
His pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, wrongly prosecuted black civil-rights activists for voter fraud in Alabama in the 1980s, called the Voting Rights Act “a piece of intrusive legislation,” and praised the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, saying that “if you go to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren’t being denied the vote because of the color of their skin.”
Trump’s Justice Department could limit voting rights in a number of critical ways, as I wrote in The New York Times last week:
It could choose not to vigorously enforce the Voting Rights Act, instead pressing states to take more aggressive action to combat alleged voter fraud. This could include purging voter rolls and starting investigations into voter-registration organizations.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a front-runner to head Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, has called for precisely this. During a meeting with Trump last week, Kobach brought a “strategic plan” for DHS that advocated purging voter rolls and drafting amendments to the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, presumably to require proof of citizenship, like a passport or birth certificate, to register to vote, which prevented tens of thousands of eligible voters from being able to register in Kansas. It’s chilling that a top Trump adviser like Kobach views voting rights as a threat to homeland security.
Trump’s chief adviser, Steve Bannon, has even more radical views. According to The New York Times, he “once suggested to a colleague that perhaps only property owners should be allowed to vote.” A co-writer of his on a Reagan documentary told the paper:
“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”
Trump himself said, after courts struck down voter-ID laws in states like North Carolina, that “the voter-ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times.” Ironically, one of the only documented instances of voter fraud in 2016 was committed by a Trump supporter who voted twice in Iowa—and was caught in a state without a voter-ID law.
If you want a better idea of the lengths a Trump administration might go to suppress voting rights, take a look at what Republicans are doing in North Carolina right now. A month after the Supreme Court ruled that states with a long history of discrimination no longer had to approve their voting changes with the federal government, North Carolina Republicans passed a “monster” voter-suppression law that required strict photo ID, cut early voting, and eliminated same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Like in so many-GOP controlled states, Republicans in North Carolina justified the voting restrictions by spreading false claims about voter fraud. (Such fraud was in fact exceedingly rare: There were only two cases of voter impersonation in North Carolina from 2002 to 2012 out of 35 million votes cast.)
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that North Carolina’s law targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.” But even after the court restored a week of early voting, GOP-controlled county election boards limited early voting hours and polling locations. The executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party called on Republicans to make “party line changes to early voting” that included opposing polling sites on college campuses and prohibiting early voting on Sundays, when black churches held “Souls to the Polls” voter-mobilization drives. The North Carolina GOP bragged before Election Day that “African American Early Voting is down 8.5% from this time in 2012. Caucasian voters early voting is up 22.5% from this time in 2012.”
Things got even crazier after the election. After Republican Pat McCrory lost the governor’s race to Democrat Roy Cooper by 9,000 votes, his campaign began filing bogus complaints about voter fraud in an attempt to overturn the election result or have the North Carolina legislature reinstall him as governor. Those challenged by the McCrory campaign include a 101-year-old World War II veteran in Greensboro wrongly accused of double voting.
That wasn’t all. After a black Democrat, Mike Morgan, won a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court, giving Democrats a 4-3 majority, Republicans have proposed expanding the size of the court by two justices, who could be appointed by McCrory in his last weeks in office, allowing Republicans to retain control. This would be an outrageous rebuke to the will of the voters and the rule of law, but you can’t put anything past the North Carolina GOP these days.
North Carolina is a case study for how Republicans have institutionalized voter suppression at every level of government and made it the new normal within the GOP. The same thing could soon happen in Washington when Trump takes power.