The California recall election met a quick and decisive demise when California voters resoundingly rejected efforts to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. But the baseless accusations of voter fraud that poisoned the end of the recall campaign show that unfounded attacks on our elections are here to stay.
Apparently now you don’t even have to wait for people to vote to claim a vote was tainted.
Claims that elections cannot be trusted did not begin with former President Donald Trump’s baseless attacks on our electoral processes in 2020, and they certainly will not end with that election.
Before the recall voting was finished and before votes were tabulated, a website for the leading Republican candidate in the recall election, conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, claimed "statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor."
In some great news for those wishing to make unfounded attacks on our elections, apparently now you don’t even have to wait for people to vote to claim a vote was tainted.
Elder’s campaign urged people to sign a petition reporting voter fraud that appears to be lifted from materials filed by one of Trump’s biggest boosters in his failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election, attorney Lin Wood. (Yes, the same Lin Wood who has faced sanctions for his post-election litigation filings.)
The allegations of fraud in Elder’s website linked to another site, which asked voters to report fraud. Elder stated, again without any basis, that “there might very well be shenanigans, as there were in the 2020 election.” Not one to be left out of the fake fraud allegation party, Trump in a statement chimed in, "Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn't rigged?"
While Elder’s campaign committed a bit of a snafu by posting allegations for voter fraud before voters were counted, his cynical strategy demonstrates a steady poisoning of a democratic processes. Elder, and all of the Republicans who stood behind Trump while he trumpeted false claims of election fraud, know you don’t have to be right to be believed. If a person in a position of power says something often enough, loudly enough and for long enough, people will believe them. It’s a dangerous lesson of politics 101: If you keep repeating the message, the message will take hold.
It’s a dangerous lesson of politics 101: If you keep repeating the message, the message will take hold.
The unfounded narrative that voter fraud pervades our elections has in fact taken hold of the Republican Party. Two-thirds of Republican voters believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. This is despite no evidence to indicate voter fraud or election rigging and despite the fact that every state and federal judge to seriously look at suits alleging voter fraud tossed out those suits.
Facts and legal decisions notwithstanding, Republicans accomplish a few important goals by pushing these false narratives.
First, it gives them cover to propose and enact strict voter laws that make it harder for certain voters, typically Democrats, to vote. Laws like those recently enacted in Georgia and Texas, which increase the barriers to entry for voters, do not serve a legitimate purpose. They serve to protect the last gasp of a political party that, based on demographics, is losing its power in a few key strongholds. Georgians voted for President Joe Biden and two Democratic U.S. senators. Texas almost sent Democrat Beto O’Rourke to the U.S. Senate. Republicans know they are losing ground in politically important states and that the way to maintain power is to essentially pick your voters by making it harder for certain people to vote.
Second, this false narrative of election fraud helps Republicans save face in the case of electoral defeat. Looking at Trump and Elder, clearly, it is not that their message failed to resonate with the voters. It's that the voters, along with unnamed election officials, joined together in a criminal conspiracy to undermine the election. Claims of election fraud allow Republicans to win even when they’re losing.
But these baseless claims of fraud represent a high-stakes, dangerous game for Republicans. They risk turning off broad swaths of their voters. If elections cannot be trusted, then why would one take part in them? Republicans need to be careful to suppress the votes of Democrats, but not members of their own party.
Fighting off false accusations of voter fraud will be much more difficult than fighting off an effort to recall Newsom. Accusations of fraud will pervade our elections for as long as people believe them. In an echo-chamber-dominated media environment, it will be difficult to convince people the lies they have been told over and over and over again cannot be trusted. But this is the hard work we must do if we want our representative democracy to truly represent us.