the system

Can Republicans Commit Voter Fraud?

Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux

The Republican Party under Donald Trump is obsessed with crime. In its efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, it has cast Democratic victories as illegal and illegitimate. In order to win elections in the future, it has passed a slew of restrictive voting laws on the state level that characterize Democratic votes as fraudulent. And to conjure a climate of fear, it has depicted Democratic-controlled metropolises as being overrun by murderers and overwhelmed by violence. The GOP wants voters to see crime everywhere — at the ballot box, swallowing cities whole.

Crime has long been a fruitful fixation for Republicans. From Richard Nixon to George H.W. Bush, “law and order” posturing from the right has sent Republicans to the White House and put Democrats on the defensive. Trump’s evocation of a mobocracy is couched in similar terms, but this time his party’s ambitions are grander and more dangerous. The Republicans are no longer trying to merely win elections with cynical, racially inflected campaigns. They are in the midst of enshrining that message’s logical extreme: a climate so paranoid that their own misdeeds seem not only reasonable by comparison but necessary.

This dynamic is nowhere more evident than in the blithe way that Trump and his allies appear to commit crime after crime themselves. There is now evidence that Mark Meadows, Trump’s White House chief of staff, committed voter fraud in 2020. Charles Bethea at The New Yorker found that Meadows and his wife, Debra, both Republicans, registered to vote using the address of a mobile home in Scaly Mountain, North Carolina. Neither of them lived there. This was September, two months before the election that Trump claimed was stolen and that Meadows spent months trying to overturn using allegations of — what else? — voter fraud.

Meadows’s response so far has been silence, so we are left to speculate about why he claimed to live somewhere he did not. Bethea suggested he wanted to make it appear that he lived in the state in case he decided to run for the Senate there. Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post offered that Meadows’s role in the White House — “an important job for the federal government” — might have kept him from establishing an actual residence. “Perhaps that’s a possible excuse,” Kessler wrote, “but he did sign the form.”

Meadows doesn’t really deserve the benefit of the doubt. If anyone was still skeptical back in 2012 that racism would attract Republican voters, his birtherist congressional campaign proved the opposite. A co-founder of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, he voted against federal relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy and helped engineer a shutdown of the government. As White House chief of staff, he was even less of a check on Trump than his predecessors. When lawmakers asked Meadows to help with their investigation into the January 6 attack on the Capitol, he refused to testify in person. If charged, he would become the only former U.S. representative to be held in criminal contempt of Congress.

His silence is not only about self-preservation as criminal allegations mount. It also expresses a coherent ideology. To people like Meadows, criminality is rampant in America, but only among their social inferiors. The idea that they might not be so different merits contempt.

Even by this double standard, his conduct was brazen. It is hard to imagine a less plausible home for him to claim as his own. Debra Meadows appears to have rented the modest 14-by-62-foot domicile once. But it looks like her husband has never been there, and they certainly did not own it. The registration card they submitted to local officials lists their move-in date as the day after they filed to vote there. The post-office box they put down as their mailing address is about 70 miles away from the property.

The home also departs glaringly from the Meadowses’ usual lifestyle: “Not the kind of place you’d think the chief of staff of the president would be staying,” the owner told Bethea. That would seem to go double for a couple whose former 6,000-square-foot residence in Jackson County sold for almost $1.3 million in 2016 and who bought another 6,000-plus-square-foot house in South Carolina for almost $1.6 million last year, according to Kessler.

Meadows had good reason to think he would get away with such blatant dishonesty. He was part of a heist attempt that much of his party approved of. In December, he published a memoir in which he claimed that Republicans would dominate elections if “everyone else who votes was alive, a real person, and an actual resident of the state they were voting in” — conditions that, if Bethea’s report is to be believed, do not apply to him. He saw the biggest civil-rights protest in American history give way to a GOP push to turn street crime into a partisan wedge issue, only to have the Democrats follow its lead. If the response to cynicism was not just support but emulation, why stop?

Trump lost the election, and his coup attempt imploded, but the GOP retained its brand as the “law and order” party. It was too easy. For all our recent reckonings, a critical mass of Americans can still be convinced that crime is a matter of the actor rather than the act. This is a good deal for Meadows. We have been told all our lives what real criminals look like, the ones we need protection against, and they do not look like him. Finding them can be as easy as following Trump’s map of fraud: Atlantans, Detroiters, Philadelphians, any other euphemism he could think of for “Black.”

This all bodes poorly for forthcoming elections. With the 2022 midterm and 2024 general races approaching, we should expect less emphasis from Republicans on winning than subverting the results they do not like. The GOP effort to install favorable state electors and election administrators after 2020 has left the party in a stronger position than last time to influence outcomes on the margins. And there is little reason to believe that pressure from Trump to deliver unearned victories to his allies and himself, should he run for president again, will be any less intense than before. The fact that their previous attempts have gone unpunished and galvanized their supporters will only embolden them further.

Meadows’s hypocrisy is part and parcel of this rapacious drive. He is not only a poster boy for the GOP’s anti-democratic turn but a model of what it seeks to make irreversible: a caste marked by impunity. We have watched Republicans grow bolder in their efforts, from the trailer in Scaly Mountain to the steps of the U.S. Capitol. They came perilously close to overturning the last election, and many of that misadventure’s main characters are poised to try it again. Meadows has yet to explain himself for 2020. The next time, it might not even be a question.

Can Republicans Commit Voter Fraud?