How does a lie come to be taken as the truth by nearly half of Americans?
The answer is disturbingly simple: Repeat it over and over again. When faced with facts that contradict the lie, repeat it louder.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of claims of voting fraud in America – and particularly of voter impersonation fraud, the only kind that voter ID laws can possibly prevent.
Last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46 percent of registered American voters believe that voter fraud occurs “somewhat” or “very” often. That astonishing number includes two-thirds of people who say they’re voting for Donald Trump and a little more than one-quarter of Hillary Clinton supporters. Another 26 percent of American voters said that fraud “rarely” occurs, but even that characterization is off the mark. Just 1 percent of respondents gave the answer that comes closest to reflecting reality: “Never.”
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As study after study has shown, there is virtually no voter fraud anywhere in the country. The most comprehensive investigation to date found that out of 1 billion votes cast in all American elections between 2000 and 2014, there were 31 possible cases of impersonation fraud. Other violations – like absentee ballot fraud, multiple voting and registration fraud – are also exceedingly rare. So why do so many people continue to believe this falsehood?
Credit for this mass deception goes to Republican lawmakers, who have for years pushed a fake story about voter fraud, and thus the necessity of voter ID laws, in an effort to reduce voting among specific groups of Democratic-leaning voters. Those groups – mainly minorities, the poor and students – are less likely to have the required forms of identification.
Behind closed doors, some Republicans freely admit that stoking false fears of electoral fraud is part of their political strategy. In a recently disclosed email from 2011, a Republican lobbyist in Wisconsin wrote to colleagues about a very close election for a seat on the state Supreme Court. “Do we need to start messaging ‘widespread reports of election fraud' so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number?” he wrote. “I obviously think we should.”
Sometimes they acknowledge it publicly. In 2012, a former Florida Republican Party chairman, Jim Greer, told The Palm Beach Post that voter ID laws and cutbacks in early voting are “done for one reason and one reason only” – to suppress Democratic turnout. Consultants, Greer said, “never came in to see me and tell me we had a fraud issue. It’s all a marketing ploy.”
The ploy works. During the 2012 election, voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout about 2 percent, or about 122,000 votes, according to a 2014 analysis by the Government Accountability Office. Turnout fell the most among young people, African-Americans and newly registered voters. Another study analyzing elections from 2006 through 2014 found that voting by eligible minority citizens decreased significantly in states with voter ID laws and “that the racial turnout gap doubles or triples in states” with those laws.
There are plenty of shortcomings in the American voting system, but most are a result of outdated machines, insufficient resources or human error – not intentional fraud. All of these are made only worse by shutting down polling places or eliminating early voting hours, measures frequently supported by Republican legislators.
Those efforts are especially galling in a nation where, on a good day, only 60 percent of eligible voters show up to the polls. The truth is that those who created the specter of voter fraud don’t care about the integrity of the voting system; they want to undermine the rights of legitimate voters because that helps them win elections.
The scary thing is how many Americans have bought into this charade. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Republican Party’s standard-bearer, Donald Trump, has elevated the lie about voting fraud and “rigged elections” to a centerpiece of his campaign.