After months of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s accusations that polls, media outlets, and even Saturday Night Live skits are part of a conspiracy to steal the election from him, his fear of election rigging seems to be spreading to voters and lawmakers. In Texas, the level of concern about the integrity of the election has reignited talks of securing paper backups for voting machines, which would provide receipts for voters to make sure their electronic vote was recorded accurately. The idea for paper backups isn’t new, but it’s become more relevant as suspicious voters question everything from voting machines to other voters.
As the Texas Tribune reports, several Texas lawmakers have proposed paper backups over the past few years, including Senator Lois Kolkhorst, who stated she may re-introduce her bill in the upcoming legislative session. Whether there will actually be action taken to secure the printers needed—at a cost of $40 million to $50 million based on estimations made in 2007—remains to be seen. But that reasonable push to ensure voting integrity serves as a beacon of hope in Texas, a state with a history of enacting voting laws that restrict access.
It’s that background that has paved the way for Trump’s claims to take hold in Texas. Up until recently, Texas was one of the many states with restrictive voter ID laws targeting voter impersonation. According to Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, voter fraud does exist in the U.S., but not in the way that Republicans typically depict it and on too small of a scale to influence a federal election.
“There is a problem—a small problem, but a real problem—in some parts of the country, including parts of Texas, involving absentee ballot fraud,” Hasen tells Texas Monthly. “That’s not the kind of fraud that Trump seems to be talking about, and it’s not the kind of fraud that Texas’s voter ID law has been targeted at. So it seems a bit of a disconnect between the kinds of examples of voter fraud that we hear Trump and Republicans in Texas talking about and the kind of fraud that actually occurs in these elections.”
Of the fifteen cases of voter fraud that have been prosecuted in Texas since 2012, eleven of them have been about vote harvesting mail-in ballots in South Texas, but none of them have involved voter impersonation. The cases in South Texas tackled the use of “politiqueras,” or people hired by local politicians to gather and mail in ballots of mostly elderly voters in areas with large Latino populations. A few weeks before early voting began in Texas, the state launched another investigation into voter fraud allegations in Tarrant County dealing with mail-in ballots, which allow military personnel, residents outside of the state, and elderly residents to vote without in-person verification of the identification of the person filling out and submitting the ballot. But the details of the Tarrant County investigation, based on votes from the primary election, don’t yet suggest a similar system as intentional as the use of the “politiqueras”:
In the primaries, about 20,000 applications for mail-in ballots were received at the Tarrant County elections office, Whitley said.
Of those, 131 involved witnesses. Of those 131, five people witnessed more than one mail-in ballot. Four of those five people witnessed requests from multiple family members, which is allowed. One apparently witnessed five applications from the same address, a nursing home or a retirement center.
The investigation is still underway, and while concerning, it hardly sounds like a conspiracy in cahoots with SNL to rig the election. But because it falls in line with the rationale of at least a decade of attempts by Republicans to restrict voting access, it’s reignited anxiety. Politicians such as Governor Greg Abbott have tweeted about the investigation as an opportunity to discuss “crushing” illegal voting as if it were widespread. Although that rhetoric doesn’t entirely support Trump’s conspiracy theories, it certainly isn’t helping to restore the public’s waning faith in the election process.
According to a survey conducted in early October by Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford Law School, and Jon Cohen, chief research officer for SurveyMonkey, some Americans have lost trust in the legitimacy of this election. In a op-ed for the Washington Post, Persily and Cohen explain their findings, writing:
When asked in this SurveyMonkey Election Tracking poll if they would accept the result should their candidate lose in November, just 31 percent say they definitely would see the outcome as legitimate. Nearly as many (28 percent) say it is either “unlikely” that they would accept the result or that they definitely would not. Again, Trump’s supporters were more apt to say they would question the legitimacy of a Clinton victory than vice versa, but sizable shares on both sides, representing tens of millions of Americans, indicate they would not accept the legitimacy of the next president of the United States.
While Persily and Cohen’s op-ed don’t mention the role Trump and other politicians play in this distrust, Hasen believes Trump’s comments have a specific goal. “I think it is intended to delegitimize Democratic victories and to convince the Republican base that when Democrats win elections, they’re stealing them,” Hasen says.
Sarah Kendzior, a writer and researcher, believes that Republican leaders who haven’t quite refuted his claims of a rigged election have encouraged a voter base that’s increasingly suspicious to the point of being dangerous. As Kendzior writes for Quartz:
This is an ominous sign for November 8. Voter fraud, a GOP talking point which Trump fans have embraced, is extremely rare. In 2007, an investigation by the Bush administration “turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections,” but that has not stopped conservative pundits from insisting—for years—that it is real, with the result that far more Republicans believe it than other political groups.
But while voter fraud is rare, fear of voter intimidation is not. Trump’s proclamations and his fans’ declarations of militancy have caused an increase in calls to elected officials from citizens scared about voting. On Oct. 1, Trump told Pennsylvania voters to “go and vote and then go check out areas because a lot of bad things happen, and we don’t want to lose for that reason.” This prompted Pennsylvania officials like state representative Eddie Day Pashinski to remind citizens that voter intimidation is in fact a crime punishable by two years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
By conjecturing that election rigging is taking place at nearly every level of the election process, Trump has encouraged his supporters to ensure the sanctity of the election themselves. As Politico‘s Ben Schreckinger reports, white nationalists are making plans for Election Day to place hidden cameras in polling areas to monitor voters, hand out marijuana and alcohol in Philadelphia “ghettos” so black voters will hopefully be too drunk or high to vote, and organize poll watchers in “urban areas to cut down on the most traditional type of voter fraud.”
Not only are those plans incredibly racist, as they center on monitoring and potentially intimidating black voters, but it also speaks to the false alarms raised by some Republican leaders about rampant voting fraud. So far only one person has been arrested for “election misconduct” or voter fraud in this election: a Trump supporter in Iowa. But there is the question of whether white nationalists or other Trump supporters will follow through with their plans.
“The issue of in-person fraud and poll watching is somewhat similar in that it would take hordes of people to be well organized to either systematically intimidate people in polling places or to commit in person election fraud,” Persily tells Texas Monthly. “There will be instances of both, but it’s not going to be a systematic attempt.”
Persily has a similar view on the longterm effects of voter anxiety. “Remember even throughout the Obama years, there were sizable shares of the population who did not think he was a legitimate president and who threatened all kinds of things. There are going to be people who continue in that mold,” Persily says. “I think that if the election is close, then I think there is greater concern that people will feel that some nefarious activity affected the outcome. If it’s a landslide election, then there will be some hurt feelings, but I don’t think that there’s going to be activity that is different from what we’ve seen previously.”
According to Persily, there may be one silver lining in this mess of an election. “Both Republicans and Democrats have now come together to reject the notion that elections are marred by widespread fraud,” Persily says. Even Abbott has taken to Twitter to pacify the fears of early voters concerned about “vote flipping.” And though we won’t see them in time for this election, the talks of paper backups for ballots is an encouraging step toward an election measure that seeks to provide peace of mind around voting without restricting access.