People cast their votes during the presidential elections. File/Reuters
Carl P. Leubsdorf, Tribune News Service
The Republican quest to stamp out alleged voter fraud has a new poster couple.
It’s not any of those thousands of Texans whose mail ballots were tossed out under the strict requirements of the state’s new voting law. Their crime, in most cases, was inadvertent — leaving out some required numbers on the application.
No, it’s Donald Trump’s final White House chief of staff, former Rep. Mark Meadows, and his wife, Debra. After news stories raised the matter, North Carolina authorities flagged them for listing a rusted mobile home in a rural area as their residence in 2020 though they never lived there.
The State Bureau of Investigation announced it is investigating them at the request of the state attorney general’s office. Under North Carolina law, anyone who “fraudulently or falsely” fills out a voter form could face felony charges carrying a maximum imprisonment of one year. Neither the former White House chief of staff nor his wife has addressed the matter publicly.
It’s ironic. Meadows was a major player in Trump’s effort to peddle the notion of widespread voter fraud, and he was on the line when Trump pressured Georgia’s secretary of state to demand he switch more than 11,779 votes so Trump could carry Georgia. That phone call has prompted a grand jury investigation in Georgia.
The Meadows probe is a reminder that there are already laws to cope with the scattered cases of voter fraud that occur in every election and that fraud is not confined to one party or one voter group. Indeed, every time in recent years that Texas and federal officials investigated the matter, they had difficulty finding more than a handful of examples, many from people who said they didn’t understand the rules.
But the recent spate of legislating was never really about voter fraud. It was a response by Republican governors and legislators to the former president’s unproven allegations that widespread fraud — especially the increased use of mail-in ballots — caused his 2020 defeat.
It’s reminiscent of what happened a decade ago when many GOP legislators and governors rewrote election laws to counter concerns about Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.
That election was marked by increased participation of minority and younger voters, inspired largely because Obama was the first major Black presidential candidate.
In fact, the 2008 financial crisis and President George W. Bush’s failures in Iraq may have been equally responsible for Obama’s victory. But many Republicans saw the result as a warning that their dependence on the diminishing proportion of white voters was a long-term problem.
One answer was voter identification laws and, in some states, tighter restrictions on voting by college students. The requirements of the Texas voter ID law were so strict that a federal court later forced changes after concluding it handicapped the poor and minorities.
There is, of course, nothing inherently racial in requiring identification for voters, just like requirements for boarding airplanes or buying alcoholic beverages. The problem is that, when you limit the kinds of valid identifications too tightly, you handicap people who don’t have driver’s licenses, live in remote areas or find it difficult to go to a state office during weekday business hours.
That was why the Justice Department, during the Obama administration, sought to block the Texas law under a provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring federal pre-clearance of significant voting law changes in states like Texas with past histories of discrimination.
Interestingly, Richard Posner, the Republican federal appeals judge whose 2007 opinion approving voter ID laws was later upheld by the Supreme Court, concluded some years later that the Indiana law in that case was “a type of law now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention.”
The federal efforts to block such laws collapsed when the Supreme Court ruled the pre-clearance requirement was no longer needed to prevent discriminatory voting laws. The opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, a critic of the Voting Rights Act since he was a young Justice Department attorney 30 years earlier.
Fast forward now to 2020, when fear of getting COVID-19 kept many Americans from every-day activities, like shopping and attending school.
It led to greater emphasis on absentee voting and drop-by boxes so voters wouldn’t risk infection in crowded polling places, especially in urban areas. Though Republicans historically relied more on absentee voting, in 2020 the Democrats took advantage of antipathy toward President Trump among many Democratic-leaning or independent voters to mount major efforts to turn out absentee votes.
In some states, voting officials eased some prior restrictions, such as those limiting absentee voting to those who were certified as too old or frail to go to the polls and stand there for several hours. (Texas officials rejected such a change.)
Even before the election, Trump questioned the potential impact of absentee voting on his chances. After the former president blamed it for the result, Republicans in many states sought to prevent a recurrence by curbing absentee voting and banning drop-by boxes, as well as creating new mechanisms to monitor or replace elections officials.
GOP politicians, meanwhile, continue to trumpet Trump’s unproven claims; Georgia GOP gubernatorial challenger David Perdue did that at a Trump rally last weekend. But expressions of concern over what Mark and Debra Meadows are accused of doing — if any — are hard to find.
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