For years, right-wing media have systematically attacked voting rights in America. In 2017 especially, right-wing media continued to push falsehoods and flawed talking points in an attempt to justify voter suppression, and with the support of the Trump administration are laying the groundwork for a renewed assault on the right to vote.
Right-wing media have long excelled at pushing misleading talking points and myths, no matter how stale, about voting. And since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder dismantled part of the seminal Voting Rights Act, these falsehoods have been used by lawmakers in support of discriminatory policies to disenfranchise voters at a dangerous pace.
This year was no exception. Following the results of special elections in which Democrats overperformed and exceeded expectations, right-wing media once again turned to a series of myths and talking points parroted by Republicans. Whether intentional or not, this misinformation will likely be used by GOP lawmakers and anti-voting activists to make it harder for everyone to cast a ballot in 2018.
Voter fraud in Alabama
Following the surprising victory of Sen.-elect Doug Jones, a Democrat, in Alabama, right-wing and far-right media cried voter fraud in an attempt to discredit the results.
While voting took place and shortly thereafter, several fake news and so-called “satirical” websites attempted to claim that voter fraud had taken place. Perhaps the most successful myth promoted by fake news websites, pro-Trump Twitter trolls, and far-right conspiracy outlets was a video claiming to show that a man admitted people had committed voter fraud by coming in from out-of-state to vote for Jones.
What the unidentified Jones supporter actually said was not as much an unlikely admission of illegality but clearly a likely reference to the coordinated attempt to canvass and assist voter registration and voting. He told FOX10 News in Alabama:
We came here all the way from different parts of the country as part of our fellowship, and all of us pitched in to vote and canvas together, and we got our boy elected.
As Splinter News pointed out, the man’s comment was “casual and seemingly innocuous,” and not an admission of voter fraud. Nevertheless, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, announced on December 18 that he planned to launch an investigation into potential voter fraud in the election based on that video, even though he reportedly admitted that the state doesn’t have any evidence of voter fraud and the young supporter could have been “play[ing] a canvassing roll (sic)” or “was part of a process that went out and tried to register voters.”
For years, politicians have used the specter of “voter fraud” as grounds not only to implement discriminatory voter ID laws, but also to launch chilling investigations designed to depress future voting efforts. Alabama voter fraud claims from the far-right and conspiracy theorists may be just helping these efforts come to fruition even faster.
Voter ID laws in Alabama
One of the most recycled hot takes to come out of the Alabama special election came from Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, who cited high Democratic turnout numbers to dismiss criticism over voter ID laws. Riley wrote in a December 19 op-ed:
Democratic Party officials and media elites insist that asking people to prove their identities before voting effectively disenfranchises minorities, but most Americans understand the importance of ballot integrity. And if such laws make it too difficult for blacks to cast a ballot, what explains the Obamalike minority turnout for Mr. Jones, given that Alabama implemented one of the country’s toughest voter ID requirements in 2014?
Scaremongers liken voter ID laws to the literacy tests and violence used to intimidate black voters under Jim Crow. But what happened last week in Alabama is not uncommon. Strict voter ID laws were passed in Georgia and Indiana more than a decade ago, and in 2008 the Supreme Court concluded that they are reasonable and constitutional. Subsequently, minority turnout increased not only within both states but also compared with other states that lack voter ID laws. Similarly, black voter registration and turnout remained level in Texas and went up in North Carolina after those states implemented voter ID mandates.
Riley is wrong for several reasons.
The first is that many people did have trouble voting in the election due to the onerous voter ID requirements in Alabama. Voters in Mobile told AL.com that they were “referred to a clerk rather than being allowed to immediately vote” if their addresses on their driver licenses didn’t match the ones of their voter registration. According to Courthouse News, poll watchers with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund “found voters running into trouble casting their ballots” due to the state’s voter ID law. Additionally, ThinkProgress reported that black Alabamians were forced to cast provisional ballots due to inconsistencies between IDs and voter rolls.
The second is that Riley’s argument about high turnout proving a lack of voter suppression has been used in other states before -- and when it has, it’s been found to be ridiculous. Sundeep Iyer, formerly of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, pointed out years ago that those who claim that higher-than-expected turnout rates excuse voter ID need “a simple statistics lesson.” As election law expert Justin Levitt told TalkingPointsMemo, “It’s called the correlation-causation fallacy, and anybody who’s had statistics for a week can talk to you about it.”
(It’s also not inconceivable that the racist rhetoric and fondness for slavery expressed by Jones’ opponent, Republican Roy Moore, may have spurred turnout among African-Americans in Alabama to a degree that even voter suppression couldn’t depress.)
Study after study has found stringent voter ID laws negatively affect minority voters when implemented. But Riley’s argument is simplistic and convenient enough for anti-voting advocates and lawmakers to apparently never cease repeating it in order to support these laws.
Felon voting in Virginia
Meanwhile, after a surprise win for Democrats in Virginia, Fox News host Tucker Carlson used the results to attack a policy implemented by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, to restore voting rights to convicted felons. After Democrat Shelly Simonds defeated a Republican incumbent by a one-vote margin for a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates (thereby creating a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans in the legislative body) in a race that was later deemed a tie, Carlson blamed McAuliffe’s move to re-enfranchise convicted felons for Simonds’ victory and the ensuing power shift in the House of Delegates:
Giving the vote to felons almost certainly flipped Virginia's House of Delegates. To paraphrase a Florida senator, the Democrats knew exactly what they were doing. https://t.co/Ykmpm9u3FO
— Tucker Carlson (@TuckerCarlson) December 20, 2017
But winning an election by one vote means that everything from felon re-enfranchisement to an on-time bus could change the course of a race.
Carlson’s comments cannot be taken in good faith. Carlson is joining a chorus in conservative media decrying and fearmongering over felon re-enfranchisement in an attempt to deter lawmakers from following McAuliffe’s lead and allowing American citizens to vote
While all of these recent attacks have been made for years, they must be taken even more seriously now. With a cooperative administration in place -- not to mention a continuous loop between conservative media and the White House -- these attacks over the right to vote have a real chance of taking hold and informing law and policy. As the 2018 midterms get closer and closer, these attacks could be devastatingly effective, and potentially leave a real-life stain on our democracy.