You’ve heard this koan a million times: If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Now let’s try a variation: If a tree doesn’t fall, and nobody was there to watch it stay upright, could you be persuaded to believe that it made a crashing sound anyway?
What am I driving at here? Read the latest article by our reporter Maggie Astor, and you’ll get it: In state legislatures across the country, Republicans have put forward hundreds of bills this year aimed at limiting access to the ballot — and they’ve justified it with the argument that, even if widespread election fraud isn’t a real problem (it isn’t), the fact that some voters believe it is ought to be reason enough to do something about it.
For decades, suspicion of voter fraud has far outpaced actual instances of impropriety. That is partly because, as Republican politicians have increasingly focused on restricting access to the ballot, they have justified it with a crescendo of claims (mostly fallacious) about improprieties.
But not until President Donald Trump lost his bid for re-election last year had false claims of voter fraud become a central political issue. Nowadays, addressing supposed fraud is at the heart of the G.O.P. platform. Representative Liz Cheney is proof of that: This week, she lost her Republican leadership post in the House because she was willing to call out Trump on “the big lie.”
This stuff gets very meta very fast — so to wrap my head around it all, I contacted my colleague Maggie to ask her what she’d found in the process of reporting her story. Here’s what she said.
Hi, Maggie. Your story is specifically about restrictive voting laws, but it’s also about something broader: the way that, as you describe it, “disinformation can take on a life of its own, forming a feedback loop that shapes policy for years to come.” To what degree was this a longstanding problem — and how much is it something that Donald Trump and his supporters have taken to a new level?
The basic problem predates President Trump. You can see a similar pattern in, say, the campaigns against routine childhood vaccinations. The disinformation about supposed side effects spreads, and eventually you start to see politicians talking about how they’ve spoken to lots of parents who have serious concerns about vaccinations and arguing that those parents’ concerns should be accommodated in policy.
There’s no question that we’re seeing this happen more because of Trump and his supporters. But it’s not that the feedback-loop pattern is becoming more common, per se — it’s that Trump has promoted so much disinformation, and the disinformation campaigns among his supporters have become so enormous and effective, that we end up seeing the pattern more just because of the volume of disinformation.
One quotation that didn’t make it into my article was from Matt Masterson, a fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory who was previously a senior election security official in the Department of Homeland Security. He told me: “There’s no question, none, that this was the broadest campaign that I have seen to undermine confidence in elections, and so now the push is broader and more pervasive across the states because the lies are broader and more pervasive across the states.”
States across the country are using worries about fraud to justify legislation. How widespread have voter-restriction laws become at the state level this year? Are we looking at something on a historic scale?
It’s absolutely on a historic scale. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voting-related bills, legislators in 47 states have introduced a total of 361 bills with restrictive provisions this year. For comparison, in 2017, the Brennan Center counted 99 bills in 31 states.
That doesn’t mean the push to restrict voting is new, of course. Far from it — 99 bills in 2017 is still a lot, and more broadly, these sorts of laws have proliferated since the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013. But the scale is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and many of the individual bills are really sweeping.
In your story, you quote a state senator from North Carolina, Ralph Hise, who wrote to you: “Elected officials have a responsibility to respond to declining voter confidence, and failure to do so is dangerous to the health of our republic.” But what about responding to declining voter confidence by simply shoring up voters’ faith in the election system, given that widespread fraud basically isn’t real? Are there any Republicans who seem willing to do that?
You do see a very small number of Republicans doing that. Think Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney or Adam Kinzinger. But the Republicans who are saying that the election was secure, and who have tried to push other Republicans to acknowledge the same, have not been received well by the broader party, to put it mildly. Just yesterday, of course, Cheney was ousted from her leadership position in the House Republican caucus because she denounced the disinformation.
So yes, there are Republicans who are willing, but they’re just not influential voices within the party now — even when they’re people like Romney who were once extremely influential voices within the party.
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