You cannot actually debunk Republican accusations of voter fraud. You can show they aren’t true (and they aren’t), but that has no bearing on the belief itself.
“Voter fraud” is not a factual claim subject to testing and objective analysis as much as it’s a statement of ideology, a belief about the way the world works. In practice, to accuse Democrats of voter fraud is to say that Democratic voters are not legitimate political actors, that their votes do not count the same as those of “the people” (that is, the Republican electorate) and that Democratic officials, elected with those illegitimate votes, have no rightful claim to power.
In a sense, one should take accusations of voter fraud seriously but not literally, as apologists for Donald Trump once said of the former president. These accusations, the more florid the better, tell the audience that the speaker is aligned with Trump and that he or she supported his attempt to subvert the 2020 presidential election. They also tell the audience that the speaker will do anything necessary to “stop the steal,” which is to say anything to stop a Republican from losing an election and, barring that, anything to delegitimize the Democrat who won.
In the last days of the California recall election that ended this week, for example, the leading Republican candidate, Larry Elder, urged his supporters to report fraud using a website that claimed to have “detected fraud” in the results. “Statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in third-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor,” the site read. Elder himself told Fox News that the 2020 election was “full of shenanigans.”
“My fear is they’re going to try that in this election right here,” he said.
Never mind that the results had not yet come in at the time Elder promoted this website, or that he was a long shot to begin with. The last Republican to win statewide high office in California was Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, when he ran successfully for re-election after winning the 2003 recall vote against the Democrat Gray Davis. Newsom, a Democrat, won his 2018 race for governor by nearly 24 points. Elder was not doomed to lose, but the idea that the election was rigged — that he was robbed of victory by mass cheating and fraud — was ridiculous. But again, the point of voter fraud accusations isn’t to describe reality; the point is to express a belief, in this case, the belief that Newsom and his supporters are illegitimate.
There are other candidates running for office making similar claims. Adam Laxalt, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination in Nevada’s U.S. Senate race, has promised to “file lawsuits early” in order to “tighten up the election.” Laxalt co-chaired Trump’s 2020 campaign in the state and supported the effort to overturn the results. “There’s no question that, unfortunately, a lot of the lawsuits and a lot of the attention spent on Election Day operations just came too late,” he said in a recent interview.
Trump endorsed Laxalt this summer, praising his commitment to the voter fraud narrative. “He fought valiantly against the Election Fraud, which took place in Nevada,” said Trump in a statement. “He is strong on Secure Borders and defending America against the Radical Left. Adam has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”
This isn’t just rhetoric, either. The ideological belief in voter fraud is driving actual efforts to delegitimize Democratic Party victories and tilt the electoral playing field in favor of Republican candidates. In Florida, for instance, a member of the state House of Representatives introduced a draft bill that would require an Arizona-style election audit in the state’s largest (and most heavily Democratic) counties.
In Georgia, a Trump-backed candidate for secretary of state, Jody Hice, is running on a promise to do what the incumbent Brad Raffensperger wouldn’t: subvert the election for Trump’s benefit should the former president make another bid for the White House. “If elected, I will instill confidence in our election process by upholding the Georgia Constitution, enforcing meaningful reform and aggressively pursuing those who commit voter fraud,” Hice said in a statement announcing his candidacy in March. As a congressman, he voted against certifying the 2020 election in January and, the following month, told a group of conservative activists, “What happened this past election was solely because of a horrible secretary of state and horrible decisions that he made.”
There is also the question of Republican voters themselves. According to a Monmouth University poll taken in June, nearly one-third of Americans believe that Joe Biden’s victory was the result of fraud, including 63 percent of Republicans. If Republican politicians keep pushing the voter fraud narrative, it is as much because Republican voters want to hear it as it is because those politicians are themselves true believers.
If this voter fraud ideology were just a matter of bad information, that would be straightforward (if not exactly easy) to fix. But as the legal scholar Ned Foley has argued, the assertion of fraud — the falsification of reality in support of narrow political goals — is more akin to McCarthyism. It cannot be reasoned with, only defeated.
The problem is that to break the hold of this ideology on Republican voters, you need Republican politicians to lead the charge. A Margaret Chase Smith, for example. But as long as Trump controls the party faithful — as long as he is, essentially, the center of a cult of personality — those voices, if they even exist, won’t say in public what they almost certainly say behind closed doors.
It is up to Democrats, then, to at least safety-proof our electoral system against another attempt to “stop the steal.” The Senate filibuster makes that a long shot as well, even as centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin insist that there’s a compromise to strike with Republicans. Let’s hope he’s right because at this stage of the game, it is the only move left to play.