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Even before he lost his reelection bid, former President Donald Trump has been obsessed with challenging and changing election laws. Should he find himself back in the White House, his allies are hoping to turn that obsession into legislative action.
Trump is expected to mount another bid for president in 2024. And as talk of such a campaign has grown more concrete, so too has speculation over what type of agenda he’d actually pursue.
Some answers can be found in the work being done by America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank stacked with former Trump administration officials. Among the group’s 20 main policy priorities, which include trade, immigration and education, is promoting more comprehensive voter restrictions in the name of election integrity. Officials describe it as a priority.
“One hundred percent yes,” AFPI President and former Trump White House Domestic Policy Council Director Brooke Rollins said of having legislation on a set of issues ready to go should Trump prevail in a 2024 election. “If we do our job right we will have a package of model legislation for the federal government and the state governments where they align.”
Rollins said she hoped Trump wouldn’t need to push election legislation because states would have done so themselves. But she left open the door for him to fill that void. “We have the fall, spring state legislative sessions,” Rollins said. “We have many shots at getting it right before the next presidential election.”
What precise election-related legislation Trump would push in Congress is unclear. AFPI has launched a Center for Election Integrity, led by former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and former Trump campaign spokesperson Hogan Gidley, to promote voter ID, clean out voter rolls, require ballots be returned by Election Day and stop the practice of ballot harvesting. But those efforts have been state-oriented and Republicans have balked at federalizing the election system. Already this year, 19 states have enacted 33 laws making it more difficult to vote.
Trump has embraced the concept of national voter ID laws, as have other prominent Republicans. Early in his first term in office, he put together a commission on suspected voter fraud and placed it under the purview of one of the country’s most aggressive advocates of restrictive voting laws, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. That ended in failure, however, after lawsuits were filed and states pushed back on voter data requests.
Trump has made no secret that his No. 1 priority is relitigating the 2020 election. He’s encouraged key states to conduct “audits” on the results and to overhaul election laws he claims promote voter fraud, even though there is no evidence of widespread irregularities and officials have called the 2020 election the most secure in American history.
His focus has come despite the consternation of some Republicans, who would prefer that the midterm elections be made a referendum on President Joe Biden’s record and who privately fear Trump’s efforts are undermining trust in American democracy. But in recent rallies, statements and comments at private events, Trump has only amplified his insistence that his theories of election fraud be at the center of the Republican Party’s platform.
It’s had an impact, according to John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster. McLaughlin said a “majority” of Republican voters he has polled now say voter fraud is a top concern.
“When you talk about Republicans and Trump voters who are going to vote in primaries it is definitely among the top issues,” McLaughlin said. “They want to make sure the results are honest and fair.”
Any push to enact restrictive election laws on the national level would face fierce opposition from Democrats. To date, they have been advocating their own legislative changes to voting laws, primarily by trying to open up avenues for early voting and voting by mail. But they’ve had no success moving bills through an evenly divided Senate, where many Republicans have railed against the idea of federalizing the U.S. election system.
Trump has led the charge to defeat Democrats’ efforts, in part by injecting paranoia and disinformation into the political bloodstream. On Wednesday, he upped the ante even further, insisting that Republican voters would refrain from voting in the upcoming elections unless GOP lawmakers “solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020.”
The statement brought immediate concerns from Republican operatives that Trump could — as he did in the run up to the Georgia special Senate elections in January — suppress voter turnout by convincing his own supporters to stay home.
“This isn’t helpful,” one top Republican operative working on the 2022 midterms texted, referring to Trump’s statement.
Liz Harrington, a spokesperson for Trump, later clarified the statement and addressed Republican fears on Twitter.
“President Trump did not say don’t vote. He pointed out the obvious consequence of not fixing fraud and holding those who broke laws accountable will be Republicans sitting out,” Harrington wrote. “If we don’t fix our elections, many voters will think their vote won't count.”
Still, Trump says his talk of a rigged election is a winning message. Over the weekend in Iowa, he spent the biggest chunk of his time at the podium complaining about the 2020 results.
“I’m telling you the single biggest issue, as bad as the border is and it’s horrible, horrible what they’re doing, they’re destroying our country, but as bad as that is, the single biggest issue, the issue that gets the most pull, the most respect, the biggest cheers is talking about the election fraud of the 2020 presidential election,” Trump said.
In interviews at that Iowa rally, Trump’s supporters said other issues were top of mind, including immigration, the economy and inflation. But they also echoed Trump’s lies about the election.
“I don’t see there’s any way [Trump] didn’t get 81 million votes,” Chris Findley of Quincy, Illinois, said. “[Democrats] changed the voting rules,” Findley said, adding that he wants there to be voting ID, voting in person, and no mail-in ballots unless someone is in the military.
Jeannette Cooley of Indianola, Iowa, said Trump should focus on two things: “Election integrity and the border.”
Hanging over these comments and Trump’s statements is the ghost of the Georgia special election. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, more than 752,000 Georgians who voted in the presidential election did not turn out to pick the state’s new senators in a heated runoff, and over half were white and lived in rural Republican constituencies. The numbers suggest that they internalized Trump’s insistence that their votes were immaterial since the elections were being rigged.
“Tactically I don’t know how this makes sense for him,” said another Republican operative. “Now if they don’t do well, the narrative will be that Trump told them not to vote. He got blamed for Georgia. A lot of times he does things that selfishly make sense for him, but this doesn’t make sense for him. What’s the upside?”