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Analysis: Trump Not the First to Claim Voter Fraud Will Rig Elections

Voter fraud could let people vote 10 times, Donald Trump warned Tuesday. Turns out, he's hardly the first to make such false claims.
A voter casts her ballot in a booth on Nov. 4, 2014, in Thornton, Colorado.Jack Dempsey / AP file

Donald Trump, slipping in the polls, has taken to warning that the election is being “rigged.” In an interview with The Washington Post published Tuesday, Trump suggested that recent court rulings against strict voting laws in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas and elsewhere could let people vote over and over.

“There’s a lot of dirty pool played at the election, meaning the election is rigged,” Trump said. “I would not be surprised. The voter ID, they’re fighting as hard as you can fight so that that they don’t have to show voter ID. So, what’s the purpose of that? How many times is a person going to vote during the day?”

Asked whether he thinks people can vote multiple times, Trump continued: "Multiple times. How about like 10 times. Why not? If you don’t have voter ID, you can just keep voting and voting and voting.”

Trump made the same case on Fox News Tuesday, warning: “People are going to walk in and vote 10 times maybe. Who knows? They are going to vote 10 times.”

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Let’s first quickly dispense with the substance of Trump’s claim. For one thing, the statistically tiny amount of double voting that has been detected in elections is almost always the result of people being registered in more than one state. That’s something a voter ID requirement would do nothing to prevent.

More importantly, studies by the Brennan Center for Justice, a widely respected public policy organization, have shown that in-person voter impersonation fraud — the only kind of voter fraud that could conceivably be stopped by voter ID — is less common than being struck by lightning. Plenty of other studies have come to similar conclusions. As an empirical matter, it is simply not in dispute that Trump’s comments are factually false.

But there’s something else that's important to note. Trump’s comments are understandably being seen in the context of his broader case throughout the campaign that a corrupt political system is being rigged by elites. They play to his supporters’ unique sense of disillusionment and alienation. In fact, though, hyperbolic and unsubstantiated warnings from high-ranking conservatives that the other side is cheating via voter impersonation fraud, double voting, non-citizen voting, felon voting, or similar schemes have been a regular feature of presidential races going back decades.

The point here isn’t to let Trump off the hook. His recent comments take it perhaps further than any other recent presidential candidate. And by already encouraging his most ardent supporters to not accept the results of the election, he’s playing with fire. But it’s worth understanding that efforts to stoke fear over voter fraud — usually said to be committed by racial minorities or the poor — are deeply woven into the fabric of our political conflicts.

Here’s what Sen. John McCain said during a 2008 presidential debate — the highest-profile stage of the campaign. The voter registration group ACORN, McCain declared, “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

Little surprise that a 2009 poll found that more than half of all Republicans believed ACORN stole the election.

OK, maybe that was just a one-time thing about ACORN, right? No. In 2004, RNC chair Ed Gillespie accused Democrats of trying to “shift focus from the voter fraud rampant among John Kerry’s supporters.” Marc Racicot, the chair of President George W. Bush’s campaign, warned that Democratic voter fraud would “ultimately paralyze the effective ability of Americans to be able to vote in the next election."

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In 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole accused President Bill Clinton’s team of trying to improperly legalize hordes of Hispanic immigrants in time for them to vote for him in the election.

"He's granting citizenship to thousands with criminal histories," Dole charged at an October event. "He doesn't care as long as they're going to vote on Nov. 5. That's an outrage."

At a separate appearance the same month, Dole said: "If you are in this country illegally, you can stay in public housing, collect welfare, get free medical care and even invite family members abroad to come and join you. You might even be able to drive here legally. And with a driver's license, you might even be able to register to vote under the motor-voter law signed by Bill Clinton. The possibilities for electoral fraud are just staggering."

The history of such allegations goes back much further. As Harvard professor Alexander Keyssar describes in "The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in America," accusations of voter fraud were common in the 19th century, and usually directed by conservative Protestants at recently arrived Irish, Italian and eastern European immigrants who were upsetting the political balance of power. To be sure, there was more to justify the fraud claims in those days, when party machines really did some times play fast and loose at election time. But, as Keyssar writes, even then they were often overblown and used to justify restrictive voting laws.

Again, Trump should be held accountable for making false and incendiary claims. But we should also recognize that this stuff has a long history. Ultimately, perhaps, it's less about Trump than about a consistent reluctance among some to accept the implications of democracy.