At 1:05 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2021, all was relatively quiet inside the Capitol building. On the house floor, members of congress assumed their socially distanced positions, as the joint session was called to order. The time to certify the results of the contentious 2020 election was now upon them, but the decades-old ceremony would soon come to a halt.
Outside the Capitol walls, a storm was brewing. Thousands of pro-Trump rioters began to tear through police barricades and charge their way towards the entrance. Only an hour later, their confederate flags and rally cries would flood the House and Senate chambers, leaving nothing but a trail of theft, violence and destruction in their wake.
The “Big Lie,” which drove the events of that fateful Wednesday, refers to the conspiracy that the 2020 election was stolen through widespread voter fraud. This notion, while largely debunked, continues to be peddled to this day, and it's high time we send it to the grave.
Claims of large-scale illegal election activity are not new. The legitimacy of the voting process has been questioned since the 2016 election — which former President Donald Trump also falsely claimed was rigged — but suspicions didn’t reach their peak until 2020. That year, state governments adjusted election procedures to protect voters from COVID-19. These changes included extending early voting periods and enabling absentee or mail-in voting, with the latter viewed as the safer yet secure alternative.
Meanwhile, several Republican politicians continued to downplay the severity of the virus, and challenged the constitutional authority of these changes. In response, multiple lawsuits were filed, alleging fraud alongside other illegal practices. Ultimately, more than 50 of the lawsuits were dismissed, as the majority lacked sufficient evidence to back up their claims.
Indeed, election fraud is a very rare phenomenon. In one report from the Brennan Center, fraud was discovered to account for about 0.0003 to 0.0025% of all ballots cast. In the unlikely event that fraud occurs, it’s probably not intentional but the result of clerical or voter error, the report further states.
In another review published in the Associated Press, less than 475 instances of fraudulent activity were found across all six battleground states in the 2020 election. This number, the writers concluded, was nowhere near enough to tip the scales in Trump’s favor.
As evident from the results of numerous studies, claims of widespread fraud are completely unsubstantiated, but the damage to the American public is already done. According to a survey conducted by Cambridge University Press, exposure to voter fraud rhetoric decreases confidence in the election process, especially among Republicans. Alarmingly, fact checking measures fail to increase confidence levels, researchers observed, calling attention to the powerful influence of elites over public perception.
While worries over election fairness can result in a boomerang effect, empowering eligible voters to use their voice at the polls, the perpetuation of voter fraud rhetoric does more harm than good. On the most basic level, it creates mistrust in an essential part of democracy, potentially discouraging Americans from partaking in elections. Taken too far, it cultivates a political environment where violence is an acceptable course of action.
In recent months, much of the hostility has been directed at those who make voting possible. Across the country, rates of harassment and intimidation towards election officials have skyrocketed. One survey from the Brennan Center estimates one in six officials have received some form of threat from election skeptics, with one in four fearing assault on the job.
Spanning from death threats to home intrusions, these violent attacks have forced election officials to take extra security precautions, draining resources from local law enforcement. In addition, the recent uptick in violence has heightened concerns about employee recruitment and retainment. In North Carolina alone, 43 out of 100 election directors have stepped down in the past three years, as reported by WRAL.
Needless to say, violence in the name of false conspiracies is completely unacceptable. Unless politicians and the media come together to inform the public about the credibility of voting procedures and condemn violence, days like Jan. 6 won’t be the last. Until then, we must support legislation that protects election officials and advocate for accurate reporting. The integrity of our elections, and thus democracy, depends on it.