The Republican Party is splintering.
In one corner stands Donald J. Trump, presidential nominee and conspiracy theorist. Trump suggests that everyone from the media to people of color to Saturday Night Live are trying to rig the election. He’s called upon his supporters to form into squads of vigilantes in order to keep an eye on polling places. And Trump’s paranoia about a rigged election is being echoed by some of his most high-profile supporters.
Jeff Sessions: “They are attempting to rig this election"
— Holly Bailey (@hollybdc) October 15, 2016
In the other corner are a growing group of Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who fear that Trump is undermining faith in our electoral system to no good end. A Ryan spokesperson told BuzzFeed that “the speaker is fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity.” Mike Murphy, a former senior strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), had much harsher words for Republicans who remain silent on Trump’s tactics.
Politico rounded up similar comments from leading Republican operatives, including former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who labeled Trump’s claims that the election is being rigged “destructive and corrosive.” Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican with his own questionable relationship with voting rights, warned that it is “wrong and engaging in irresponsible rhetoric” to make evidence-free assertions that the election is rigged. Even vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence appeared uncomfortable with his running mate’s efforts to undermine the election results, telling Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd that the Republican candidates “will absolutely accept the result of the election.”
Ryan, Pence, and others are right to downplay the risk of voter fraud on Election Day. A comprehensive study of more than 1 billion ballots cast in elections from 2000 to 2014 found just 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation fraud at the polls. Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State conducted a two-year investigation into voter fraud. He found, at most, 134 incidents out of nearly 1.6 million votes cast. None of these incidents involved voter impersonation at the polls.
So voter fraud is quite rare. And one particular kind of voter fraud — voter impersonation at the polls — is so rare that it virtually does not exist.
But you’d never guess this fact if you listened to many Republicans talk about voter fraud. Republicans like Mike Pence, who’ve touted voter ID laws as a solution to the illusory problem of voter fraud at the polls. Currently, seven states will have Republican-backed voter ID laws in effect during the 2016 election (several other states enacted such laws, but the laws were weakened or halted by court orders). The idea that voter fraud is rampant, and voter ID is a necessary solution, pervades Republican rhetoric from its lowest-ranking officials to its most powerful leaders.
Not long after his fellow Republicans began speaking out against his claims that the upcoming election will be rigged, Trump responded with incredulity on Twitter.
Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2016
Trump is, of course, wrong that “large scale voter fraud” is happening, but it’s hard to blame him for his surprise at Republican leaders that suddenly became truth-tellers about the risk that this election will be rigged. False tales of widespread fraud have been the Republican Party’s bread and butter for the last decade. They’ve used these tales to sell laws like voter ID which accomplish nothing other than disenfranchising groups that tend to prefer Democrats over Republicans.
And yet, now that Trump is deploying this very same rhetoric — albeit in a more bombastic fashion — many of these Republicans are acting as if Trump is somehow outside the norm.
The reality, however, paints these Republican leaders in a much less innocent light. Trump’s warnings of a rigged election are nothing more than a continuation of the very same strategy his fellow Republicans used to sell voter ID. The GOP has sewn the wind. They own this whirlwind.