Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the legitimacy of the presidential election is an unprecedented attack on the foundation of American democracy and rightly drew widespread condemnation from political and media leaders.
Yet many Republicans, while condemning Trump’s comments, still stoked fears of a rigged election after the third presidential debate. “Let’s not kid ourselves, can we please not act like voter fraud and irregularities don’t exist,” said RNC Chair Reince Preibus. “I don’t think you’re going to get Republicans to back down on the fact that voter fraud is real and it needs to be dealt with, but it isn’t something in most cases that overthrows an election.”
Other commentators, like CNN’s Jake Tapper, said fraud was a small problem, but so was voter suppression. “CNN equating voter fraud and suppression as things that sometimes happen, but very rarely. That’s very flawed,” tweeted Daniel Nichanian of the University of Chicago.
This is a dangerous false equivalence. Voter fraud is a very small problem in American politics and voter impersonation, which GOP-backed voter-ID laws are meant to address, is exceedingly rare. As I’ve written over and over, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than impersonate another voter at the polls.
The real danger to American democracy stems from GOP efforts to make it harder to vote. New voting restrictions—like voter-ID laws, cuts to early voting and barriers to voter registration—that are in place in 14 states for the first time in 2016 will make it harder for millions of eligible voters to cast a ballot. And voters are lacking crucial protections because this is the first presidential election in 50 years without the full provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
That is the problem we should be focusing on. Take Wisconsin, for example, where Preibus warned of “voting irregularities in Milwaukee” last night. Wisconsin didn’t present a single case of voter impersonation in court to justify its voter-ID law. Yet 300,000 registered voters, according to a federal court, lack strict forms of photo ID and could be disenfranchised by the law. “It is absolutely clear that Act 23 will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes,” wrote Judge Lynn Adelman. Another federal judge in Wisconsin, James Peterson, wrote, “A preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections.”6