First come the lies, then come the laws: that has been the pattern of the Republican Party’s voter suppression strategy since the Bush administration. Now, the ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims Trump and his administration are making about illegal voting would seem to forewarn of an unprecedented, top-down attack on voting rights led by the White House.
Donald Trump continues to push a narrative—without offering a single shred of evidence—in which he lost the popular vote because three to five million undocumented people voted illegally. Now, other prominent Republicans are helping to spread and broaden that lie. Rep. Steve King (R-IA), for example, claimed today that he found those numbers “plausible.”
The myth of widespread voter fraud has been debunked so many times we can scarcely believe we are still having to counter it. Numerous academic studies have consistently proven that the myth of voter fraud is a convenient lie used for partisan purposes. News21 at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism looked into over 2,000 alleged election-fraud cases, and found almost no examples of non-citizens voting. As the New York Times reported last month, the election officials who supervised the 2016 election say there are virtually no credible allegations of fraudulent voting.
For that matter, not even Mr. Trump’s own attorneys believe it. “All available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake,” they said, in a court filing opposing Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s recount petition.
So it should be self-evident that Mr. Trump’s narrative is a blatant lie. What is perhaps not so clear is what the lie foretells: a massive push from the executive branch to make it harder for American citizens to vote. We in the voting rights community have heard these preparatory lies before, and so we are now bracing for a full-press attack. We know the Trump administration will seek to implement stricter voter ID requirements, draconian proof-of-citizenship requirements, and laws that allow partisan election officials to purge the voter rolls unchecked.
We have already seen warnings of this agenda: several weeks ago, Trump advisor (and perennial voting rights opponent) Kris Kobach accidentally revealed the administration’s plans to bring an assault on the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), commonly known as the “motor-voter law.” Since it was implemented in 1995, this vital federal law has allowed over 300 million U.S. citizens to register to vote, or update their registrations, through DMVs and other government agencies. (The NVRA accounted for 26 million registrations in 2013–14 alone, the last period for which data is available.) The NVRA also protects American voters from wrongful voter purges. Next to the Voting Rights Act, which conservatives on the Supreme Court managed to gut two years ago, it is the most important law protecting the right to vote in the United States.
Project Vote has been working to defend and fulfill the promise of the NVRA for more than a decade, so it’s no surprise to us that the NVRA is on the Trump administration’s hit-list. It is no surprise to hear Rep. King beginning to lay phony narrative groundwork about non-citizen voting to justify an imminent attack on this vital law. And it is certainly no coincidence that Trump repeated his lies about millions of fraudulent voters in his first official meeting with congressional leadership yesterday. He was not merely justifying his popular-vote defeat: he was also announcing—in the clearest of dog-whistles—his terrifying legislative agenda.
It is important that we not just hear the administration’s lies: we must also hear what those lies are signaling, and be prepared to fight back. We must not let the lies go unchallenged, and we must not allow lawmakers to use those lies to justify putting a legislative stranglehold on American democracy.