It is breathtaking to watch the president-elect assert, without a shred of evidence, that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the recent election. While making unfounded claims is of a piece with the campaign that he ran, Trump's predilection for falsehoods and conspiracy takes on a new weight now that he is transitioning into the presidency. As the new conspiracist-in-chief, he will introduce a dangerous instability and unreality to the White House.
The most frightening thing about the voter fraud lie, however, is not its novelty but its familiarity. Trump isn't just talking like a fabulist. He's talking like a Republican.
The false narrative of voter fraud has been a GOP talking point for years, despite a lack of evidence. It has been used to assault voting rights through restrictive ID laws, voter roll purges and mass closure of polling sites, as Ari Berman has exhaustively documented in his book "Give Us the Ballot" and in his reporting for The Nation. So how can Republicans who know Trump is lying about voter fraud now correct him? They've been peddling some version of this falsehood for the better part of a decade.
And things are about to get worse. With Barack Obama in the White House, the Justice Department has worked to defend voting rights, helping bring challenges against laws that showed discriminatory intent (like in North Carolina, where a court struck down a number of new voting laws that were explicitly aimed at disenfranchising African-Americans).
The Trump administration is laying the groundwork to do just the opposite: to not only let new voter restrictions to go unchallenged, but to assist in the restriction of the franchise. That was made clear in the now-infamous Kobach memo, which reporters got a glimpse of when Kris Kobach visited with Trump, who is reportedly considering him to head the Department of Homeland Security. The memo indicates Kobach's interest in the National Voter Registration Act – and given Kobach's hostility to voting rights, it's unlikely he's looking to expand registration opportunities.
Even the news that Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, once suggested only property owners should be able to vote is in line with the Republican assault on equal access to the ballot. Right before the 2012 election, Kevin D. Williamson wrote in National Review that voting had become too widespread. "We should prepare for the election-reform debate by first ridding ourselves of the superstition that more people voting means a healthier body politic. It doesn't." He then concluded, "If we end up with fewer voters, we may yet end up with better elections."
Nor was he alone. A year earlier, Matthew Vadum argued in American Thinker that "registering the poor to vote is un-American." He likened it to "handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country" through the ballot.
These weren't just philosophical arguments but the start of a policy discussion. Williamson, seeking to restrict the franchise to people he believed to be worthy of it, believed the best way to drive down voter turnout was through restricting absentee ballots, strengthening voter ID laws and eliminating the National Voter Registration Act and the Help America Vote Act. Vadum, too, had the National Voter Registration Act in his sights – just as Kobach does.
Republicans seem committed to restricting the vote, so it's up to everyone else to defend equal access to the ballot. And that means first understanding that the Constitution is of limited use here. Yes, the 15th and 19th Amendments protect the franchise, but they mean absolutely nothing without a federal government – Congress, the Justice Department and the judiciary – willing to enforce them. To rest on constitutional guarantees is, in the end, to do nothing at all.
When it comes to the fight for voting rights, there will be unjust, unconstitutional barriers. But that is nothing new. Such barriers were in place for the better part of a century until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That act came about, in part, thanks to Freedom Summer, when volunteers from across the country headed to the South to register African-American voters. It was not perfect activism – white volunteers often talked down to or ignored local black leaders, conflict between competing civil rights groups led to fissures in the movement – but it drew the national spotlight to the issue of disenfranchisement.
What is needed now is a new Freedom Summer. A summer when national activism is focused specifically on the ballot. A summer when money is funneled toward registration drives, defraying the cost of supporting documents for IDs and court challenges to discriminatory laws. A summer when new activists support and amplify the work already being done in communities around the country. A summer when rallies and teach-ins press the argument that the ballot is a sacred right, one that deserves to be defended by all levels of government. A summer when the stories of the disenfranchised are told again and again, to anyone who will listen.
The political crisis facing this country in the coming years will be, in part, one of chaos, of having too many crises to know where to focus. As the cornerstone of democratic governance, equal access to the ballot must be a top priority for Americans invested in preserving – or, depending on how badly the next few years go, rebuilding – our representative democracy.
Originally published in US News and World Report.