Donald Trump has said he wants “maximum voter participation,” and that he’s running a campaign “based on empowering voters, not sidelining them.” But when it comes to the voting laws that threaten to disenfranchise voters in states across the country this year, he sings a very different tune.
Trump made clear Sunday he supports voter ID laws and other restrictive rules. And, going further even than most other Republicans, he has falsely claimed there’s an epidemic of illegal voting, including by the undocumented immigrants he wants to deport en masse.
Pressed by Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Trump discussed his views on voting rules in more detail than he has yet. Those comments, along with other remarks he made earlier this year, give us a pretty clear idea of what the presumptive GOP nominee thinks about access to the ballot.
Trump and Todd had the following revealing exchange:
Todd: Do you want to see the voting laws changed to make it easier to vote?Trump: I want to see voting laws so that people that are citizens can vote. Not so people that can walk off the street and can vote, or so that illegal immigrants can vote--Todd: So you're not for same-day voter registration?Trump: No, no. I want to make the voting laws so that people that-- it doesn't make any difference how they do it. But I don't think people should sneak in through the cracks. You have to have -- And whether that's an ID or any way you want to do it. But you have to be a citizen to vote.Todd: Well, of course. That is the law as it stands already. Let me ask--Trump: No, it's not. I mean, you have places where people just walk in and vote.
And in January, Trump was asked about by an attendee at a New Hampshire rally about voter fraud.
"Look, you've got to have real security with the voting system," Trump replied. "This voting system is out of control. You have people, in my opinion, that are voting many, many times. They don't want security, they don't want cards." (Trump looked set to elaborate but was stopped by the arrival of a man on stage who he had invited up to take a selfie.)
Here’s what we can glean from both sets of remarks: Trump supports voter ID laws as a way to ensure people can’t “sneak in through the cracks.” He opposes same-day voter registration, a reform that has been credited with significantly expanding access to the ballot, because he thinks it might let non-citizens vote. More broadly, his priority for voting laws is that they should crack down on fraudulent voting — both by illegal immigrants, and by people voting multiple times — which he appears to see as rampant.
Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to a request to provide support for the view that undocumented immigrants are voting in significant numbers — and there’s no evidence that they are. (Politifact labelled "false" Trump's claim that same-day registration creates a risk of non-citizen voting.) Nor is there evidence that “double voting” is a widespread problem.
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But if Trump’s views on voting don't appear to be too well-grounded in policy knowledge, they're perfectly in sync with his worldview. It’s hardly surprising that the candidate who has made building a wall on the Mexican border the centerpiece of his campaign and wants to ban Muslims from the country would be preoccupied with the imaginary threat of non-citizen voting.
There’s more to it, though. Twice in his exchange with Todd, Trump refers to the idea that people can just “walk in off the street and vote.” Similarly, he fears that people can “sneak in through the cracks.” In other words, this isn’t just about nativism, and a fear of non-citizen voting — it’s about a vaguer idea that it’s just too easy to vote, and that the “security” of the voting system is more important than its accessibility. That appears to reflect the same authoritarianism that can be found in many of Trump’s other views, from his desire to “open up” libel laws to his praise for Vladimir Putin. At its root, it suggests a disregard for democratic values.
A look at Trump's key supporters bolsters the point. His most important backer in the Senate, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is a staunch foe of strengthening the Voting Rights Act. As a federal prosecutor, Sessions tried unsuccessfully to prosecute three black voting rights activists for voter fraud. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has backed cuts to early voting and other restrictions on voting. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have automatically registered citizens to vote, saying it's already easy enough to register. And Maine Gov. Paul LePage has tried several times to impose voter ID in his state.
Of course, Trump also stands to benefit directly from strict voting rules. Trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls, he likely knows that voter ID laws and other restrictive measures in swing states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Virginia could be crucial to his chances of winning this fall.
At the same time, Trump’s views on voting sit awkwardly with much of his rhetoric from the Republican primary. When it has served his own interests in the fight for the nomination, he has portrayed himself as a champion of people-powered democracy.
“Just as I have said that I will reform our unfair trade, immigration and economic policies that have also been rigged against Americans, so too will I work closely with the chairman of the Republican National Committee and top GOP officials to reform our election policies,” Trump wrote last month in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "Together, we will restore the faith — and the franchise — of the American people.”
“My campaign will seek maximum transparency, maximum representation and maximum voter participation,” Trump added.
But with Sunday’s appearance, Trump confirmed, if there was any doubt, that he has no interest in applying those principles beyond the nominating contest to elections more broadly.