Russian president Vladimir Putin easily cruised to a fourth term this past weekend, surprising absolutely no one. The only nail-biters were how many people would head to the polls — always unpredictable when the victor is certain — and how completely Putin would trounce the token opposition. Now, presumably, the newly re-elected leader can turn his attention to meddling in elections in other countries.
Speaking of the United States, while both Democrats and Republicans would prefer a little more predictability in the November midterms, if not Russian-style oversight, it is members of the GOP who seem most nervous about the eventual outcomes, especially in close House races. And while the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity was officially disbanded in January, its spirit lingers on in hints from officials that certain votes should count more than others.
You might remember that the commission was fueled, at least in part, by the inability of President Donald Trump to accept that his 2016 electoral victory came with a popular vote defeat. The notion that millions of votes favoring Hillary Clinton were the product of shenanigans and an influx of illegal ballots, cast by undocumented immigrants and stray folks who wandered by, was dismissed by state election officials of both parties.
But after Democrat Conor Lamb appeared to have defeated Republican Rick Saccone by a few hundred votes in a special congressional election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, echoes of that refrain resurfaced for a moment, before both candidates moved on to focus on the next contests in a changing, redistricted landscape. The state GOP sent a letter to the Pennsylvania secretary of state asking him to look into “a number of irregularities,” including complaints about voters not appearing on the rolls.
Watch: Pelosi: Lamb Win in Republican District a ‘Tremendous Victory’
In Alabama, as far as Roy Moore is concerned, out-of-state residents were the difference in his loss to Democrat Doug Jones in a December Senate race. It’s not that he lost, it’s that the votes that defeated him were fraudulent.
Though not too many Republicans lined up to back accused child-molester Moore, and plenty breathed a sigh of relief when he slinked from the scene, his dismissal of the African-American voters who sent him packing resembled Trump’s recent erasure of the women of color who caused his success with female voters in 2016 to sink to 41 percent — not the 52 percent he claimed while stumping for Saccone.
It all must be music to the ears of Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who was second in command at the commission.
In Kobach, Trump managed to snag an enthusiastic ally, and neither has given up. The Department of Homeland Security took over the work of the commission, and Kobach remains a warrior for its mission, ridding the country of the fraudulent votes of his imagination.
Lately, however, Kobach has been running into some tough questioning in a court case challenging the voter ID restrictions he pushed through in his state and hoped to export.
The fact that courts are turning an increasingly skeptical eye toward restrictive voting legislation that hinders all-too-legitimate voters, especially the poor, the young and minorities — and are at the same time questioning the legality of gerrymandered districts in states from Pennsylvania to North Carolina — means that there will only be more pushback when voting results don’t match partisan expectations.
Ghosts of elections past
Control of the House and Senate is in play in the 2018 midterms, and there are contested state elections as well. So as November grows closer, and as nervous Republicans eye energized Democrats who might actually manage not to shoot themselves in the foot with internal divisions and purity tests, expect to hear more about the specter of invisible voters placing a fraudulent thumb on the scale.
There is, of course, a more reasonable solution. All politicians could make it easier for every citizen to vote, and then compete for the votes of all Americans instead of demonizing selected groups by region, race, age, income and the like.
But when a political opponent is defined as the enemy, it is difficult to turn toward any kind of universal appeal. Federal judges earlier this year struck down North Carolina’s congressional districts as an unconstitutional gerrymander, after judges had previously struck down a set of maps favoring Republicans as intended to dilute black votes. GOP state Rep. David Lewis owned the partisan map, saying he drew it to favor Republican candidates because he thinks “electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country,” despite vote totals showing a more even split between parties would more accurately represent the state.
Reasoning like that makes shouting fraud in a fractious country seem logical — though it leaves Russia with little to do.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.