Read: The ‘hubris’ of the Supreme Court’s voting-rights ruling
On Saturday, President Donald Trump ensured that the issue would be front and center as Election Day approached. “All levels of government and Law Enforcement are watching carefully for VOTER FRAUD, including during EARLY VOTING,” he tweeted. “Cheat at your own peril. Violators will be subject to maximum penalties, both civil and criminal!”
Trump’s tweet could be read straight, as a warning from the president against the threat of fraud. But that would ignore centuries of context. From the days of Jim Crow election rigging on, the specter of voter fraud has always been cover for disenfranchisement. American history is brimming with examples of strong-arm tactics used during elections. To wit, in 1987 the Republican National Committee’s Ballot Security Task Force engaged in such naked intimidation that federal courts bound the committee in a consent decree that just expired this year. Trump himself was sued by multiple state Democratic parties in 2016 after he encouraged supporters to “watch” polling places for illegal voting.
But Trump’s tweet is instructive in detailing just how voter suppression could carve out space at the edge of legality. The president has repeatedly peddled the falsehood that millions of noncitizens voted in 2016. The contagion of that misinformation spread, and began shaping policy. The claim was the basis for the creation of Trump’s voter-fraud commission, which disbanded in January amid lawsuits alleging that it was requesting voter data from states in order to disenfranchise citizens.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the GOP nominee for governor and the erstwhile architect of the voter-fraud commission, implemented his own statewide effort, using the prosecutorial powers of his office to attempt to uncover a conspiracy of noncitizen voters. He netted a grand total of nine convictions, mostly of people who’d accidentally turned in two ballots in different places. Kobach secured just one conviction of a noncitizen voter.
Georgia’s Brian Kemp has carried the banner, too. Using a program that Kobach developed called Crosscheck, which matches voter records to personal identification, Kemp’s office has purged hundreds of thousands of voters from rolls. The secretary claims that those measures have been taken in order to maintain election security, under the office’s duty to keep rolls up to date, secure, and error-free. But an onslaught of lawsuits in the past two years allege that most of the people purged are people of color.
Recent purges have dominated the race this fall between Kemp and Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams. In 2017, Kemp’s office purged a half-million people from the rolls, including more than 100,000 who seemed to be removed for not having voted in the prior election. This year, Georgia purged an additional 700,000. Aided by a new state law mandating “exact matches” between records, 53,000 people—80 percent of whom are people of color—have been moved to “pending” lists because of clerical errors in their registrations. And that’s just a sample of the ways that government interference has shaped the race: Shifting polling places and the use of handwriting analysis to throw out absentee ballots have also been reported.