Peruse left-wing media reports and Twitter trends and one will discover that claims that “Trump won” are labeled as misinformation. Polling numbers, however, show that many Americans hold exactly the opposite view, and think that Biden’s claim to the presidency is questionable.
Underlying such contention is the thorny question of who is and who is not eligible to participate in political life via the ballot box. Unfortunately, America’s media and public intellectuals seem determined to place this question outside the limits of proper debate; meanwhile conservatives bark up the wrong tree when seeking to restore election integrity, employing cognitive dissonance in their slogans regarding the issue. If conservatives hope to reclaim constitutional government, they must address this flawed approach and seek a different path.
The 2020 presidential election was always going to be strange. The COVID-19 lockdowns provided the occasion for a dramatic expansion of early and absentee voting. Whether this shift was opportunistic or necessary, it set the stage for a chaotic election night. With an unprecedented volume of alternative voting mechanisms at work, it was hardly surprising that results were reported in an irregular manner.
Tens of millions of Americans, though, didn’t buy the results. According to polling taken by The Economist shortly after President Biden was declared the winner in November 2020, a full 42 percent of Americans believed that “Biden did NOT legitimately win the election.” This sentiment was hardly limited to committed partisans; 37 percent of the skeptics were self-described moderates.
These are alarming statistics regardless of what one believes about the 2020 election. A republic in which nearly half of its citizens don’t accept the legitimacy of the declared winner of the highest office in the land is in big trouble.
Compounding the problem is that these public opinion statistics do little to resolve questions about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Indeed, the declaration of a Biden win soon after election night may have rendered a factual assessment of the results impossible. Trump and his supporters would inevitably call for an audit, and the public had been told by the media for years that the president’s Deplorable base would not accept the election results. The narrative was set and both sides entrenched, uninterested in entertaining another point of view.
The standard Republican response to the current situation has been to double down on “election integrity.” These two buzzwords have been taken up by the organs of Official Conservatism—GOP campaigns, think tanks, talk radio, and more—and now rival phrases like “strong national defense” and “free markets” in rhetorical importance. It seems to be an innocuous position—who could be against integrity in elections? But there is a fatal flaw in how conservatism tries to bring about election integrity.
The America First Policy Institute (AFPI) exemplifies this dominant approach. The AFPI—the “official” think tank for the MAGA movement, created after the end of the Trump administration—and its principal members have a dubious record in defending the priorities of the America First movement that supported former President Trump, not least in calling for immigration reform. But on election integrity, AFPI rushed to the front lines. The organization features a “Center for Election Integrity,” chaired by Ken Blackwell, Ohio’s former Secretary of State. “America is an idea and it is a promise that the individual matters,” Blackwell says in a slickly produced video introducing the Center. “We want to make it easy to vote but hard to cheat.” That statement, “Easy to Vote—Hard to Cheat,” has become the Center’s tagline.
This tagline was rolled out in the wake of Georgia’s voting controversy earlier this year. The state’s Election Integrity Act of 2021 implemented important, but banal, voting regulations, most of which exist in some form in other states: requiring voter ID, expanding early in-person voting, and reducing the calendar window to request absentee ballots. Despite the mundane nature of these regulations, the media quickly launched a firestorm of protest. Corporate America, led most famously by Delta, Coca-Cola, and Major League Baseball, condemned as racist Georgia’s election integrity regulations. In protest, the MLB moved its All-Star Game to Colorado—a state which also requires an ID to vote, but which has a Democratic governor. President Biden, not one for subtleties, labeled the law “Jim Crow for the 21st Century.” 
Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who seemed genuinely puzzled by the backlash, took to a Fox News radio program to defend his law, saying the bill makes it “easy to vote, hard to cheat.” Kemp reiterated his message at a press conference several days later in response to the MLB moving the All-Star Game from Atlanta, explaining that there were reasons for seeking more secure and accessible elections.
Texas Republicans joined Gov. Kemp in murmuring the “easy to vote, hard to cheat” mantra when Texas became the latest state to pass an election integrity law in August. But while it’s a pithy soundbite, few seem to accept the slogan’s formula. Perhaps that is because the statement’s two assertions necessarily come into conflict. There are many ways to make voting easier. Officials could, for example, dramatically increase the number of polling stations, eliminate the need for volunteers by keeping stations unstaffed, and simply have voters drop off ballots at their convenience. They could eliminate voter registration altogether. And they could move elections entirely online and allow voting from home. These proposals, if implemented, would certainly make voting “easy.”
But these and other “easy” fixes also make it easier to cheat. The 2020 election saw an unprecedented number of votes cast early and by absentee ballot. Whether or not one believes allegations of widespread fraud, it must be recognized that expanding the methods available to vote will always expand the possibility of fraud. Either Americans place reasonable, but stringent, restrictions on how their elections are conducted, or they must accept the likelihood that increased fraud will play into the election system. 
A better question to ask is one that recognizes the trade-off: “Should we make it easier to vote, or harder to cheat?” 
Herein lies the problem with current debates over voter fraud and election integrity. The 2020 election revealed a regime in which competing ideas exist about the nature of the American republic and who should participate in its political life, especially via voting. This question has been the subject of intense debate throughout America’s history. It’s a history that has seen the expansion of the franchise to ever more people, often as a necessary corrective to the unjust racial discrimination that once abounded in American life.
But this reality has also fed the narrative that any restrictions on voting must be inherently bigoted. If Americans can find a way forward in preserving constitutional government, they must be willing to reject this egalitarian impulse that has taken hold of public life.
There is nothing bigoted about placing reasonable limits on the franchise. America still excludes—for the time being, at least—from its elections noncitizens, those under age 18, and convicted felons.
above: J. D. Vance, 2022 Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, speaking at an event in Phoenix, Arizona on April 17, 2021 (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)
An example of this problem arose during the summer, when J. D. Vance, candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, floated an unorthodox proposal about voting: “Let’s give votes to all children in this country, but let’s give control over those votes to the parents of those children.” Anticipating media condemnation, Vance doubled down, adding: “I’m sure The Atlantic and The Washington Post and all the usual suspects will criticize me about this in the coming days. ‘Well, doesn’t this mean that nonparents don’t have as much of a voice as parents? Doesn’t this mean that parents get a bigger say in how our democracy functions?’ Yes. Absolutely.”
Given the contested election results in 2020, Vance knew that any suggestion about how to restructure the franchise would bring vitriolic denunciation—and he was right.
New York Magazine published a quick response, under an ominous tag reading “VOTER SUPPRESSION,” in which columnist Ed Kilgore attempted to paint Vance’s suggestion as an “example of an idea that has long been popular on the right: that we have too many voters who cast their ballots the ‘wrong way.’” Kilgore wrote:
If suppressing the votes of the wrong people doesn’t go far enough, enhancing the votes of the right people could be another option. That was the underlying logic, so to speak, of Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance’s suggestion at a conservative conference over the weekend.
The media establishment is too eager to endorse an expansion of the franchise, often under the assumption that those groups they wish to “empower” share the media’s political preferences. But suggestions that could minimize the political power of some groups, or which might place reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the franchise, such as election integrity laws, are deemed out of bounds, anti-democratic, or outright malicious.
There is hope, though, among Republican voters. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that two-thirds of Republicans say voting is a “[p]rivilege that comes with responsibilities that can be limited,” rather than a “[f]undamental right for every U.S. citizen that should not be restricted.” America’s Founders would have sided with the former view. Voter turnout among the eligible population stayed far below 50 percent well into the 19th century—and these rates were hardly met with the same well-funded, star-studded “Get Out the Vote” campaigns seen today.
It is important to recognize that GOP leaders may have more in common with the media that denounce them than with the voters whom they purport to serve. Reasonable restrictions on the privilege of voting are needed to make elections more honest. As seen in Georgia, no amount of sloganeering about making it “easy to vote” will prevent those advocating restrictions from being condemned by the left as promoters of modern-day “Jim Crow.” Most voters who support voter identification laws think differently. But for the elites of both parties, being called “racist” stings and must be avoided at all costs.
It is still possible to restore constitutional government. Many American voters have a better handle on the nature of their republic, and voting’s place therein, than professional politicians or the mainstream media. If they wish to avoid cheating, then the right to vote cannot be freely handed out to anyone who submits a ballot.