Violent far-right rallies fueled by baseless voter fraud claims

Far-right extremists fired up by Republicans' false claims about the November presidential election invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to try to overturn the results. (Photo by Tyler Merbler via Flickr.)

Last week far-right extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the November presidential election, which was certified by all 50 states and deemed "the most secure in American history" by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. President Donald Trump lost resoundingly to Democrat Joe Biden in both the popular vote and Electoral College, but Trump refused to concede for weeks and allied himself with Republican leaders to continue spreading false claims of fraud — including during the Jan. 6 rally in Washington where he urged his supporters to march on the Capitol.

"Because you'll never take back our country with weakness, Trump told the angry crowd. You have to show strength and you have to be strong."

Hundreds heeded his call, breaking through lightly guarded barricades around the locked Capitol and smashing through windows and doors to swarm the headquarters of the U.S. House and Senate. Carrying guns, Tasers, zip handcuffs, and Confederate flags, the crowd of mostly white men terrorized lawmakers, staff, and journalists and succeeded in delaying the official vote to certify Biden's win for several hours.

The first major breach of the U.S. Capitol since the British invasion during the War of 1812, the siege resulted in the deaths of five people, including U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. The attack drew fierce bipartisan condemnation and led the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to impeach President Trump for the second time.

But despite calls for peace from both major parties, some GOP lawmakers continue to promote unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud that are feeding Trump supporters' anger. "Those who committed last week's attack were motivated by the same lie the Brennan Center has been fighting for years — that votes by Black and brown people and equal access to the ballot amount to stolen elections," said Michael Waldman, the president of the voting rights advocacy group. "This was the lie that drove Trump's fruitless attempts to overturn a free and fair election and erase the votes of millions. It's the Big Lie."

Months before Election Day, people relying on Trump for election news were already hearing about the possibility of mail-in ballot fraud, an allegation deployed as part of the GOP's aggressive campaign to block the expansion of absentee voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center, 75% of Republicans who relied on the president as a major source of news said they had heard "a lot" about problems with increased mail-in voting compared to 57% of other Republicans. A Quinnipiac Poll found that more than three-quarters of Republicans believe Trump's false statements that there was widespread voter fraud in November's election.

Voting rights advocates say the attack on the Capitol represents the culmination of an administration that used lies, deception, and misleading claims to undermine key democratic institutions. "Millions of Americans have been the target of disinformation and conspiracy theories until they can no longer tell the difference between reality and fiction. This moment has been building since 2016," Emerson Brooking, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab and co-author of "LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media," told USA Today.

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, the first Republican senator to announce his objection to the certification of electoral votes, suggested that Biden's win was illegitimate. He continued to undermine the results of the election even after the mob attack on the Capitol, stating from the Senate floor that evening, "We do need an investigation into irregularities, fraud."

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas condemned the mob violence in a statement but continued to call for an investigation into voter fraud, saying that it is the "right thing to do." Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, who lost her runoff race to the Rev. Raphael Warnock, had questioned the validity of the presidential election, though after the attack said she couldn't "in good conscience" oppose the certification of the results. However, she continued to raise doubts about the outcome, saying during the certification debate: "I believe that there were last-minute changes to the November 2020 election process and serious irregularities that resulted in too many Americans losing confidence not only in the integrity of our elections but in the power of the ballot as a tool of democracy."

Hawley, Cruz, and others have been repudiated for fueling the extreme right with misleading information. But voting rights advocates say that the Republican Party as a whole must acknowledge its culpability for manufacturing false voter fraud claims and for undermining the legitimacy of the electoral process.

Fortifying democracy

For more than a decade now, with demographic trends threatening their power, Republicans have deployed allegations of widespread election fraud to stoke distrust in the U.S. electoral system and to sell policies that suppress the vote to its advantage. Since the 2010 Republican wave strengthened the party's control over legislatures across the South, the GOP has cited exaggerated and false claims of voter fraud to justify passing legislation such as voter ID laws that have been shown to curb voting and have a disparate suppressive impact on African Americans, Latinos, women, and young people.

The Republican push to limit voting intensified after 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court in the Shelby County v. Holder case out of Alabama weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by effectively striking down the requirement that states which have violated the VRA must get federal preclearance before implementing new voting policies. In Shelby's wake, 11 of the 13 Southern states adopting restrictive new voting measures.

Since Trump's election in 2016, he and others in the party have continued to hype fraud claims in a way that has undermined the legitimacy of the electoral process in the eyes of their followers. For example, Trump continued to perpetuate unsubstantiated claims of election fraud to challenge his loss of the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. The president went as far as to convene a nationwide investigation of voter fraud in the 2016 election, claiming that millions of people voted illegally. The now-disbanded election integrity commission failed to find evidence of widespread voter fraud but succeeded in amplifying fears of a corrupt election system. This strategy created the foundation for Trump and his enablers to challenge the legitimacy of the 2020 elections.

Experts fear these falsehoods will lead to more attempts to restrict voting access — and fuel violent protests.

Such restrictions are already being considered in Georgia, where after record turnout in the runoff elections earlier this month Republican officials with no evidence have raised concerns about fraud in the election process — part of a long campaign to suppress Black voters in the state. The proposal would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, require photo ID for absentee voting, and prohibit ballot drop boxes."Let's be real clear here," Carol Anderson, chair of African American Studies at Atlanta's Emory University, told Time magazine. "The Republicans would not be looking at this if … you hadn't had the use by African Americans of mail-in voting absentee ballots."

Far-right activists who continue to claim the presidential election was "stolen" are reportedly planning rallies at state capitols ahead of Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration, saying last week's violence was just the beginning. The FBI sent a memo to law enforcement agencies across the country warning of potential armed protests in the states starting Jan. 16. Plans were disseminated via encrypted WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram groups calling for an "armed march on Capitol Hill and all state capitols" on Jan. 17. The fliers, which include the instruction to "come armed at your personal discretion," also circulated on the chat sites Gab and Parler, which have attracted extreme far-right personalities. “We will come in numbers that no standing army or police agency can match,” wrote a popular Parler user who frequently posts about QAnon, and who is being tracked by the Anti-Defamation League.

These demonstrations are scheduled to conclude with what organizers are calling a "Million Militia March" on Jan. 20 as Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are to be sworn in at a ceremony on the Capitol grounds. Because of the potential threats, states have begun deploying National Guard troops, 20,000 of whom are also expected to be in Washington for the inauguration. Among the states where the Guard has been called up is North Carolina, where the Republican-controlled legislative leadership has raised the specter of fraud to crack down on voting.

"Ongoing security concerns in Washington, D.C. and state capitals around the nation following last week's attack on the U.S. Capitol must be taken seriously, and I will deploy necessary resources to keep North Carolinians safe," said Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

Voting rights advocates say the best way to counter the current threats to U.S. democracy is to fortify the country's election systems through legislative action. "The only appropriate way to respond to this crisis is not just by holding the perpetrators accountable, but also by actively strengthening our democracy, so that it's freer, fairer, and more accessible than before," wrote Zachary Roth, a fellow and former editorial director at the Brennan Center.

Currently stalled in Congress are two bills that would do just that. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (S. 4263) would serve as an antidote to the Supreme Court's Shelby ruling, restoring the full power of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by establishing a new formula for determining which states need federal preclearance of election changes. And the For the People Act (H.R.1) is a broad political reform bill that The Washington Post called "perhaps the most comprehensive political-reform proposal ever considered by our elected representatives." H.R.1 would expand voting rights, overhaul the campaign finance system, end gerrymandering, and make the democratic process more inclusive.

"What better way is there to fight back against those who tried to suppress democracy than to finally make our system responsive to the will of voters?" Roth wrote. Both bills are currently stalled in the Senate, now under Democratic control.