What do Republicans mean by a “rigged” election?
Is this type of voting illegal or just too convenient?
Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images
In a review of the many statements Republican politicians make these days about allegedly improper election procedures or voter conduct, the Washington To postby Philip Bump made a crucial distinction which often gets lost in all the rhetoric:
Maybe there was rampant fraud, maybe there wasn’t. But everyone could agree that the election was rigged against Trump by the very elites he was trying to disempower.
One of the first articulations of this approach came from Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). He argued that the law expanding voting access in Pennsylvania was unconstitutional, implying that it gave Biden an unfair advantage. The law, passed by Republicans, had made it to the state Supreme Court, with the chief justice saying that while the law was invalid, the votes were not – a glimpse of the number of similar allegations regarding the “tricking” which would be played.
In other words, you did not have to believe that illegal conduct had occurred to claim that an election was “rigged”. Some Trump supporters used the term in much the same way Bernie Sanders supporters deployed it against Hillary Clinton and the establishment Democrats behind her in the 2016 primaries: unfair advantage built into laws and procedures elections, not a violation thereof. A big difference, of course, is that Sanders supporters alleged the system discouraged maximum voter turnout, while the folks at MAGA claim the opposite: that pro-democracy “elites” have made it too easy for people to vote legally.
Trump‘s inner circle, of course, used “rigged” ambiguously. Sometimes he and his 2020 campaign team alleged (but never substantiated) genuine breaches of the law, such as in the wild on Nov. 19, 2020, presser when Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell promoted all sorts of sinister conspiracy theories, even global. But other times the Trump team simply complained about the rules themselves rather than their violation. That was the idea behind all the litigation over extended deadlines for voting by mail. There have been too many legal votes by the wrong people.
As Bump notes, many Republicans place their rhetoric in that happy medium between complaints about illegal voting and complaints about political inconvenience (and therefore unfair!) vote. This re-election announcement from Alabama Governor Kay Ivy is a classic:
“Fake News, Big Tech, and Blue State Liberals” flew Trump’s election by mailing “everyone and their brother mail-in ballots” and allowing “corrupt curbside voting,” Ivey says. Does this mean that she claims these ballots were cast illegally? Or do these practices simply make it too easy for Democrats to vote, which is unfair to Republicans? She doesn’t tell us, and Bump thinks it’s deliberate:
Curbside voting is “corrupt” because… why? Because of fraud? Or because it is an expansion of access into more democratic areas? Whether it can be perceived as either, of course, is the point. If widening voting in general is considered dishonest or illegal, as above, you can simply wave at any tool to facilitate voting as something to be avoided at all costs.
Wider voting possibilities are of course open to both Republicans and Democrats. And until Trump came along and started demonizing voting by mail, Republicans were as likelyand in some places more likelyto avail themselves of this and other “convenience vote” methods as Democrats.
What Trump understood, however, is that in almost every state, in-person votes are counted before votes cast by mail. And that meant that if he could convince a disproportionate number of his own supporters to avoid voting by mail, he would most likely have an early lead on election night and could declare himself the winner, deeming votes counted later illegitimate. It was the “red mirage” scenario that some of us predicted, and that’s exactly what happened.
But Trump’s questionable claims about voting by mail are so ingrained in the Republican imagination that even those not running around touting conspiracy theories are still fighting to make voting harder. Mike Pence, for example, is generally considered to represent the most sober and law-abiding wing of the MAGA movement. But the “freedom programthat he recently published highlights the following “election integrity” proposals:
Make in-person voting the primary method of voting, encouraged and supported by all levels of government and election administration. Absentee voting should be rare and only in a very limited set of circumstances, with clear guidelines and procedures for requesting, receiving, depositing, validating and verifying absentee ballots.
Ban in-person early voting – where permitted – more than ten days before Election Day.
Is it about ending fraud? Or is it just treating any system that isn’t rigged for Republicans as rigged for Democrats? Perhaps the fairest thing to say is that an awful lot of Republicans want to have it both ways, telling MAGA ultras that these people break every electoral law in sight, while telling themselves with a wink that what’s bad for the donkey is good for the elephant.