The nightmare scenario for liberals across America—what if a defeated Donald Trump refuses to leave office?—reared its head last week, when the president floated the idea of delaying the election. “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he tweeted, and then wondered: “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller later defended the suggestion, saying it was “shocking’’ that “nobody who mails in a ballot has their identity confirmed” and that “nobody checks” if the voter is a citizen, which is not true. But many other Republicans disagreed with the president, if timidly; Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN it was not “a particularly good idea.”
If this specific suggestion went too far even for the Republicans, they should not have been surprised at what their party’s actions had unleashed. There is a very fine line that separates the broader Republican Party position that American elections are seething with Democratic voter fraud, and the Trumpian conclusion that we should therefore postpone them indefinitely. (Leave it to Trump to fail at Subtext 101.) But to pretend that walking right up to that line is acceptable, stopping just short of authoritarianism, legitimizes the longstanding Republican project of undermining elections, which began long before Trump.
The Republican Party has spent decades sowing doubt about the legitimacy of elections, through high-level campaigns of propaganda about incredibly rare instances of voter fraud, successful purges and measures to restrict the vote under the guise of protecting the ballot, and racist fantasies about buses of immigrants showing up to vote for Democrats. They don’t even seem to care whether undermining mail-in ballots will actually hurt them; they don’t seem to care if the coronavirus kills their own constituencies, after all. The ones who do mewl, often anonymously, about how Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting should realize that this is simply a taste of their own medicine, a poison that they have spent years dripping into our democracy. The Republican machine now has no other mode than to say that elections are fake. (Except, of course, the ones they win—although sometimes, those too.) It will continue to churn on, even if it eats itself.
This did not start with Trump’s candidacy in 2015, or even with the Tea Party in 2010. Republican schemes to purge black voters from the rolls have been defended as “ballot security” for decades, as Vann Newkirk reported in The Atlantic. In 1981, the Democratic National Committee sued the Republican National Committee for allegedly sending out off-duty cops as a “National Ballot Security Task Force,” a ploy to intimidate voters—all in the name of “protecting” the ballot from voter fraud. In 1987, Democrats protested again, after Republicans used letters sent to voters being returned as undeliverable as a pretext to challenge those voters’ eligibility to vote. A Republican spokesperson claimed the “purpose of the program was to help election officials make certain that no dead or fictitious persons vote,” but an RNC official said the quiet part loud in stating that these tactics would “keep the black vote down considerably.”
But the national party’s rhetoric against voter fraud reached a new level—and this is undoubtedly a total coincidence—in 2008, after the Democrats had chosen the first Black nominee for president. Most prominently, the Republicans accused ACORN, an organization that helped register voters in low-income communities, of trying to register fake voters and thus steal the election for their old pal Barack Obama, who had represented ACORN in a lawsuit and worked with ACORN-affiliated groups during his time as a community organizer. (As Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney covered in detail for HuffPost, ACORN did not, in fact, intend to steal the election.) This campaign culminated in a hugely bipartisan congressional vote to defund the organization in 2009, when Democrats had solid majorities in both chambers. The organization folded in 2010.