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California recall is Trump's new election fraud testing ground

Trump and state Republicans are experimenting with rigged election lies. It's worrying.

Call it Stop the Steal, California edition: Former President Donald Trump and other leading conservatives are aggressively pushing the false narrative that California’s election system is rigged ahead of Tuesday’s special election to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The efforts show how Trump’s disinformation agenda surrounding the trustworthiness of elections is becoming more widely adopted and even institutionalized by the right almost a year after the 2020 elections. Now, California is serving as a worrying new testing ground for how the GOP might want to deploy new versions of election disinformation in the midterm elections.

In a political approach bordering on paradoxical, the GOP is using the specter of a sham election to encourage participation in the election.

The efforts have a certain irony to them: Republicans have long sought to use voter disenfranchisement as a tool for suppressing Democratic voter participation; now they're using the claim that Republicans are the victims of disenfranchisement to try to whip their own base and cast doubt on Democratic victories.

On Tuesday, the polls will close for a special election in which Californians will vote on whether Newsom should be removed from office, and, if so, who should take his place. The recall effort was kicked off by a retired county sheriff's sergeant, a Republican, furious about Newsom’s progressive positions on the death penalty and protecting undocumented people, and then it picked up steam in response to Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Polling experts say it looks like Newsom will survive the recall effort in the deeply blue state, but also caution that a victory is far from guaranteed, especially since this election is being conducted primarily by mail and because it’s an off-year election held in September, meaning polling estimates might not capture actual voting trends.

Despite the fact that Republicans actually do have a nontrivial chance at toppling Newsom, they’re not just leaning into criticizing him and his tenure. They’re also spreading evidence-free claims that the election is rigged against them. Trump told the right-wing media outlet Newsmax last week that the recall is “probably rigged,” and suggested that the fact that California mailed out vote-by-mail ballots to all registered state voters is somehow a sign of impropriety or vulnerability to fraud.

In reality, mail-in ballots have been used reliably since the Civil War, and the rate of fraud committed through mail-in-ballots is almost unfathomably small. In the last 20 years, about 250 million votes have been cast through mail-in-ballots across the United States, and Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, and Charles Stewart, director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, estimate that the fraud rate among those ballots is “0.00006 percent of total votes cast.”

But to raise the facts of voter fraud — how likely it is to happen, what safeguards we have to protect against it — is in a sense to miss the point. Because just as with elections in the past, Trump is not considering their actual security, but trying to generate suspicion about the electoral system as a whole, and is engaged in a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose political strategy of trying to explain a likely failed effort to eject Newsom from office as a conspiracy against him and his allies.

And what’s perhaps more disconcerting than seeing Trump wielding his influence to cast doubt on yet another election is seeing his program seep further into the right-wing media ecosystem and the Republican Party.

The California GOP’s approach toward disinformation has displayed a striking ambivalence about electoral integrity in its messaging, as reported by Politico:

The California Republican Party is both encouraging voters to trust the process and creating avenues to report wrongdoing. The party has put out videos featuring Rep. Michelle Steel and other figures urging voters to participate, including by mail or by handing ballots off to collectors — a process conservatives once decried as “ballot harvesting” and now pursue. Its website also features options to volunteer or contribute money to “election integrity” efforts that could include legal action.

What we can see here is a two-pronged strategy meant to simultaneously encourage Republican voters to trust the system enough to vote, while also systematically encouraging them to look for a nonexistent fraud problem. In a political approach bordering on paradoxical, the GOP is using the specter of a sham election to encourage participation in the election.

The Republican front-runner for replacing Newsom, conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, is also embracing the “this election is a fraud but vote” strategy, calling on his supporters to report “suspicious activity” and claiming he has already prepared to file a lawsuit which could dispute the election results — while also calling for Republican voters to turn out for him in big numbers.

Republicans have long supported disenfranchising voters as a strategy for winning elections. But they’re increasingly experimenting with the lie that they are the disenfranchised ones to try to encourage more participation in the electoral process, and protect their reputation when they lose. No party seriously interested in democracy would succumb to such a a strategy.