Last weekend, President Trump tweeted a warning: “All levels of government and Law Enforcement are watching carefully for VOTER FRAUD, including during EARLY VOTING. Cheat at your own peril. Violators will be subject to maximum penalties, both civil and criminal!” But study after study has concluded that, in a nation of more than 300 million people, voter fraud is vanishingly rare. The myth of voter fraud persists only because it is ingrained in modern politics, after a decades-long effort by Republicans to portray Democratic votes, and especially African-American votes, as fundamentally suspect.
The modern myth of voter fraud began in 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s sixth year in office, when Republicans recognized that their policies could not attract a majority of voters. Their budget cuts had hit black Americans particularly hard. An attempt to weaken Social Security just before the election bode ill for the midterms, especially since the Republicans had to defend vulnerable senators elected in 1980 on Reagan’s coattails. How could Republicans address the gap between the unpopularity of the programs and their determination to win? Not by changing their policies, but by changing the composition of the electorate.
The GOP launched a “ballot integrity” program to prevent “voter fraud,” claiming that dead or fictional people were casting ballots. Republican officials sent mail to registered voters in heavily Democratic areas in Louisiana, Indiana, and Missouri, and if the mail came back as undeliverable, Republicans would challenge those individuals’ right to vote. Democrats sued, and the suit turned up a memo between Republican National Committee officials explaining the purpose behind the program: “I would guess that this program will eliminate at least 60-80,000 folks from the rolls,” one GOP operative wrote. “If it’s a close race, which I’m assuming it is, this could keep the black vote down considerably.”
Of course, the idea of keeping African-Americans away from the polls was not just a tactical choice, and it has a much longer history. After the Civil War, white racists insisted the country’s newly enfranchised black voters simply wanted government handouts and cared little about the good of the nation. Purging such undeserving ingrates from the body politic, the argument went, was a public service, leaving the nation’s government in the hands of white men who understood what was best for everyone. The civil rights movement resurrected this old linkage of racism, economics, and politics, as opponents of integration insisted that black Americans demanding equal rights were, in fact, trying to redistribute the wealth of hardworking white men to their own pockets through taxation.
Ronald Reagan played to this theme in his political rise, warning that taxes were sucking hardworking white men dry to support folks like the “welfare queen,” who, he said, “has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.” But it was not simply greedy black Americans destroying the country. Any American who believed that the government should regulate business or provide a basic social safety net — in short, anyone, Democratic or Republican, who accepted the premises of the New Deal state and was willing to levy taxes to pay for them — was dangerous. By 1990, Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia was attacking even Republican president George H. W. Bush as a “RINO” — Republican in Name Only — because he agreed to a tax increase to combat a rising deficit. ...