President Donald Trump, in an entirely predictable fashion, is using speculative and ill-informed allegations of mass voter fraud to suggest that an Electoral College victory is being stolen from him. Many Republican voters, primed for unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud by a decades-long campaign unmoored to facts, are likely to believe him.
And, at the moment, Republican Party leaders and top officials at the Justice Department are aiding Trump in his campaign to undermine the election results, either actively or through their silence.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has a commanding lead of the popular vote, and is likely to receive more votes than any presidential candidate in history. But the candidate who wins the most votes doesn’t necessarily win the presidency, which is what gave America the presidencies of George W. Bush, in 2000, and Trump, in 2016.
With all eyes on the Electoral College, Trump is spreading disinformation about the voting process and suggesting that officials should stop counting votes. On Wednesday morning, he tweeted:
“Last night I was leading, often solidly, in many key States, in almost all instances Democrat run & controlled. Then, one by one, they started to magically disappear as surprise ballot dumps were counted.”
“We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!”
“They are finding Biden votes all over the place — in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. So bad for our Country!”
“They are working hard to make up 500,000 vote advantage in Pennsylvania disappear — ASAP. Likewise, Michigan and others!”
This is the point where responsible Republicans could step in and condemn this sort of rhetoric, and encourage patience and a fair count of all the votes. So far, they haven’t.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, which should be keenly interested in any criminal conspiracies to steal elections, did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did a spokesman for U.S. Attorney William McSwain, a Republican whom Trump appointed as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania who has taken an extremely political and pro-Trump approach to his job at the top federal prosecutor in the district, which includes Philadelphia.
HuffPost also contacted spokespersons for Pennsylvania’s other two top federal prosecutors: David J. Freed of the Middle District and Scott W. Brady of the Western District. Before the election, each Trump nominee reassured voters in their state that they were looking closely for signs of fraud and would work to uphold the integrity of the election. Neither provided comment.
In Pennsylvania, the false conspiracy about mass fraud has been pushed by a network of right-wing activists that deals in misinformation. Trump was already spreading his skepticism of vote counting in Philadelphia in presidential debates, saying that “bad things happen in Philadelphia” and urging his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.”
Rudy Giuliani, who helped Trump spread misinformation ahead of the 2020 election, said Wednesday that he would be heading to Philadelphia. “Will not let Philly Democrat hacks steal it!” he tweeted. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), claimed in a press conference that what Trump really wanted is to “make sure” that “every legal vote is counted” — even though the president has said nothing of the sort and has called for legal votes not to be counted because they come from districts unfavorable to him. McCarthy also suggested, completely baselessly, that people were voting after the election. Asked if he had evidence, he ignored the question.
But Philadelphia officials were prepared. The office of District Attorney Larry Krasner put out updates on how things were unfolding in Philadelphia, the city ran a calming livestream of the vote counting process, and Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt ― a Republican ― urged patience as the votes rolled in.
So far, Fox News has also appeared to act with some responsibility; it called Arizona for Biden on Tuesday night and stood up to withering criticism from the Trump campaign and even some of its own talent over the call, which was later made by other mainstream news outlets. But all that might not be enough to shut down the narrative that the network and conservative activists have promoted for years: that Republicans lose elections because Democrats ― particularly in majority Black cities ― engage in massive criminal conspiracies to steal votes. It’s a conspiracy theory that also requires you to believe that Republicans on every level are totally inept at discovering these massive criminal conspiracies.
Ballot fraud does occasionally happen. In Philadelphia, a former judge of elections in South Philly admitted to accepting bribes to inflate vote totals, and a former congressman caught in a FBI sting in the 1970s was indicted in the same election fraud scheme.
Huge voter fraud on the scale Trump has suggested, however, would require a massive criminal conspiracy by countless officials. And Republicans, especially in this election, have been watching the voting process closely. In Philadelphia, the Trump campaign was reduced to surveilling ballot boxes and watching as voters dropped off a couple of ballots, which they attempted to spin into a mass conspiracy threatening election integrity. On Election Day, a Trump campaign official spread misleading information about extremely minor potential violations of election code. But an effort to find any evidence of mass voter fraud in the city of brotherly love landed, like expected, as a complete failure.
Election Day 2020 went relatively smoothly. There were no huge systemic issues at polling places. But the 2020 election ― happening in the midst of a pandemic that has taken the lives of 230,000 Americans ― is zeroing in on mail-in ballots, the exact form of voting that he discouraged his voters not to use. He’s returning to the same playbook he used in 2016.
“I’m guessing that part of it is he’s preparing to lose the election, and he wants to be able to say that he didn’t actually lose the election,” Lorraine Minnite, author of the 2010 book “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” said in 2016. “I just don’t think he cares about the effects of what he says.”
Back in 2016, when Trump also warned about voter fraud, a poll showed that 72% of Trump supporters thought that “a lot” or “some” voter fraud happened in their state. At the time, some Republican officials downplayed Trump’s claims of mass voter fraud. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said he was “fully confident” that states would conduct the election with integrity.
Trump won the electoral college in 2016, so his claims of voter fraud didn’t play as big of a role. But even then, hurt by his huge loss in the popular vote, Trump insisted that voter fraud was a massive problem, and made the ludicrous claim that he would’ve won the popular vote without it. His Republican appointees have been in charge of the Justice Department for more than three years now, and they’ve been on the hunt for mass voter fraud conspiracies. But they’ve never bought a case alleging a massive, wide-scale conspiracy to steal an election. Some of the voting cases they have brought have been pretty small potatoes.
Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said Wednesday that while some Republicans had spoken out to calm fears of massive voter fraud, that she wished more would do so.
“Whether or not that happens in as broad a swath as one would hope, that remains to be seen. Obviously we’ve got the lessons of the last several years on that front,” Gupta said.
Gupta also said it would be “important” for the Justice Department to put out a message about the integrity of the elections, but she doesn’t think that it will.
“I am not optimistic right now given the attorney general’s prior comments sort of validating some of the president’s misinformation in interviews that he has given in the past couple weeks that he will be the voice of reason upholding basic democratic norms at this moment,” Gupta said.
“Make no mistake: Our democracy is being tested in this election. This is a stress test of the ideals upon which this country was founded,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) on Wednesday. “And the basic rule of one person, one vote, that still carries, and it has to carry here.”
The most important thing, Wolf said, “is that we have accurate results, even if that takes a little bit longer than we’re used to.”