I ran across an important distinction between two meanings of a term we hear a lot, and wrote about it at New York:
In an examination of the many, many statements Republican politicians are making these days about allegedly improper election procedures or voter conduct, the Washington Post’s Philip Bump made a crucial distinction that 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 earliest articulations of this approach came from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). He argued that the law expanding voting access in Pennsylvania was unconstitutional, implying that this gave Biden an unfair advantage. The law, passed by Republicans, had gotten to the state’s Supreme Court, with the chief justice saying that even if the law was invalid, the votes weren’t — a preview of how many similar allegations about ‘rigging’ would play out.”
In other words, you didn’t have to believe illegal conduct had occurred to claim that an election was “rigged.” Some Trump backers were using the term pretty much the same way Bernie Sanders supporters deployed it against Hillary Clinton and the Establishment Democrats behind her during the 2016 primaries: an unfair advantage baked into election laws and procedures, not a violation of them. A big difference, of course, is that Sanders supporters were alleging the system discouraged maximum voter participation, while MAGA folks allege the opposite: that pro-Democratic “elites” made it too easy for people to vote legally.
Trump’s inner circle, of course, has used “rigged” in an ambiguous way. Sometimes he and his 2020 campaign staff alleged (but never substantiated) actual lawbreaking, as in the wild November 19, 2020, presser when Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell promoted all sorts of sinister, even global, conspiracy theories. But other times Team Trump simply complained about the rules themselves rather than their violation. That was the idea behind all the litigation over extended deadlines for casting ballots by mail. There was too much legal voting by the wrong people.As Bump notes, a lot of Republicans nestle their rhetoric into that sweet spot between complaints about illegal voting and complaints about politically inconvenient (and thus unfair!) voting. A recent reelection ad from Alabama Governor Kay Ivy is a classic. “The fake news, Big Tech, and blue-state liberals” stole the election from Trump by sending “absentee ballots to everyone and their brother” and allowing “corrupt curbside voting,” says Ivey. Does that mean she is claiming that those ballots were cast illegally? Or is it just that these practices make it too easy for Democrats to vote, which is unfair to Republicans? She doesn’t tell us, and Bump thinks that’s deliberate:“Curbside voting is ‘corrupt’ because … why? Because of fraud? Or because it’s an expansion of access in more Democratic areas? That it could be perceived as either, of course, is the point. If expanding the vote in general is treated as dishonest or illegal, as above, then you can simply wave your hand at any tool for making voting easier as something to be avoided at all costs.”
Expanded voting opportunities, of course, are open to Republicans as well as Democrats. And until Trump came along and began demonizing voting by mail, Republicans were as likely, and in some places more likely, to avail themselves of that and other “convenience voting” methods as Democrats.
What Trump understood, however, is that in nearly every state in-person votes are counted before votes cast by mail. And that meant if he could convince a disproportionate number of his own supporters to avoid voting by mail, he’d very likely have an early lead on Election Night and could declare himself the victor, deeming later-counted votes illegitimate. This was the “red mirage” scenario some of us predicted, which is exactly what happened.
But so ingrained have Trump’s dubious claims about voting by mail become in the Republican imagination that even those who don’t run around touting conspiracy theories still fight to make voting harder. Mike Pence, for example, is generally though to represent the more sober and law-abiding wing of the MAGA movement. But the “Freedom Agenda” he recently released 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. Mail-in voting should be rare and only for a very limited set of circumstances, with clear guidelines and procedures for requesting, receiving, casting, validating, and auditing mail-in ballots.
“Prohibit early in-person voting — when allowed at all — more than ten days before election day.”
Is that about ending fraud? Or is it just about 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 the MAGA ultras that those people are breaking every election law in sight, while telling each other with a wink that what’s bad for the donkey is good for the elephant.