Just a few days after the polls closed in Florida’s 2018 general election, Rick Scott, then the state’s governor, held a press conference outside the governor’s mansion and made a stunning accusation.
Scott was running for a US Senate seat, and as more votes were counted, his lead was dwindling. Targeting two of the state’s most Democratic-leaning counties, Scott said there was “rampant fraud”.
“Every person in Florida knows exactly what is happening. Their goal is to mysteriously keep finding more votes until the election turns out the way they want,” he said, directing the state’s law enforcement agency to investigate. “I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the great people of Florida.”
Scott eventually won the election, and his comments eventually faded. But the episode offered an alarming glimpse of the direction the Republican party was turning.
A little over two years later, fanned repeatedly by Donald Trump throughout 2020, the myth of a stolen American election has shifted from a fringe idea to one being embraced by the Republican party. The so-called big lie – the idea that the election was stolen from Trump - has transformed from a tactical strategy to a guiding ideology.
For years, civil rights groups and academics have raised alarm at the way Republican officials have deployed false claims of voter fraud as a political strategy to justify laws that restrict access to the ballot. But the way Republicans have embraced the myth of a stolen election since Trump’s loss in November, is new, they say, marking a dangerous turn from generalized allegations of fraud to refusing to accept the legitimacy of elections.
Supporting the idea of a stolen election has become a new kind of litmus test for Republican officeholders.
Republican election officials in Georgia and Nevada who have stood up for the integrity of the 2020 election results have been denounced by fellow Republicans. Republican lawmakers across the US have made pilgrimages to visit and champion an unprecedented inquiry into ballots in Arizona, which experts see as a thinly veiled effort to undermine confidence in the election. One hundred and forty-seven Republicans in the US House voted to overturn the results of the November election absent any evidence of voter fraud and after government officials said the 2020 election was the “most secure in American history”.
“Voter suppression is not new, the battle lines have been drawn over that for quite some time. But this new concern about election subversion is really worrisome,” said Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies election rules.
The willingness to deny election results comes amid heightened concern that Republicans are maneuvering to take over offices that would empower them to block the winners of elections from being seated. Several Republicans who have embraced the idea that the election was stolen are running to serve as secretaries of state, the chief election official in many places, a perch from which they would exert enormous power over elections, including the power to hold up certifying races.
We’ve had disputed elections in the past, but we’ve never had the denial of the basic mathematical reality of counting votes
“I do think it’s a relatively new phenomenon, unfortunately, and disturbing,” said Edward Foley, a law professor at the Ohio State University who has written extensively about the history of contested elections in the US. “We’ve had disputed elections in the past, but we’ve never had the denial of the basic mathematical reality of counting votes.”
The effort to undermine the election results appears to be working. A majority of Republicans, and a quarter of all Americans, believe Trump is the “true president”, according to a May Reuters/Ipsos poll. Sixty-one per cent of Republicans believe the election was “stolen” from Trump, the same poll showed.
Rohn Bishop, the chairman of the local Republican party in Fond du Lac county in Wisconsin, said it was damaging to have such widespread uncertainty about the results of elections and was generally supportive of efforts to restore confidence. But he noted his dismay that Republicans continued to push lies about the election. He noted that the Republican party of Waukesha county, a bastion of GOP voters, recently hosted a screening of a film backed by Mike Lindell, a Trump ally and prominent election conspiracist, that pushed false claims of fraud.
“We need to win back those suburban Republican voters that Waukesha county used to turn out, not keep poking them in the eye by forcing down their throat more of this election stuff, Trump stuff they don’t want to hear,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s so hard for Republican elected officials to tell the base the truth. That would help.”
Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard historian who studies elections, noted that there was a long history in America of using fraud as an excuse to push back on gains in enfranchisement among Black and other minority voters. White voters are becoming a smaller share of the US electorate, data shows. “There are definitely echoes of this now,” he said. “There has always been an inclination to see new voters of different ethnicities or appearance as agents, or unwitting agents of fraud.”
Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican operative in Florida who is now retired, said the lies about the election provided a kind of cover for those unable to concede they were a shrinking minority in the population.
“In the past, party elders, party leaders … exploited the crazies in order to win elections and then largely ignored them after the elections,” he said. “What has happened since then is that Trump opened Pandora’s box and let them out. He not only let them out, he affirmed them and provoked them. And so now they’re running wild and they are legitimatizing these delusions.”
While there have been other nastily contested elections in US history – President Rutherford B Hayes was labeled “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency” after the contested election in 1876 – both Keyssar and Foley said it was difficult to find a comparison to what was happening now.
“We’ve never had that. We’ve never had McCarthyism-style fabrication of a conspiracy theory applied to the process of counting votes … I would say it’s especially dangerous when it’s the electoral process,” Foley said. “Because it’s the electoral process that ultimately allows for self-government. When the mechanisms of self-government kind of get taken over by a kind of McCarthyism, that’s very troubling.”