Will Wilkinson

Publisher of Model Citizen. Formerly: New York Times contributing opinion writer; US politics correspondent for The Economist; columnist for

Sep 16, 2021
Published on: Washington Post
1 min read
Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder speaks in Costa Mesa on Sept. 14 after the polls close on California's recall election. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

This week, Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom crushed the bid to oust him from office by a roughly 27-percentage-point, 2.5 million-vote margin, with around three-quarters of votes counted as of Wednesday. Unseating Newsom was unlikely. But that didn’t stop Republican Larry Elder — the hard-right radio personality who emerged as Newsom’s leading challenger — from trying to preemptively delegitimize the result with intimations of voter fraud.

“They’re gonna cheat. We know that,” Elder said of Democrats last week. “There might very well be shenanigans,” he surmised. When asked Monday if he would accept the results of the election no matter the outcome, Elder dodged. “I think we all ought to be looking at election integrity,” he said, as if the integrity of the election was in question. On the same day, NBC News reported that Elder’s campaign linked to a website claiming “Statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor.” Former president Donald Trump chipped in by releasing a statement that said the quiet part out loud: “Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?”

Newsom’s margins rendered Elder’s already ridiculous voter fraud narrative too far-fetched to sustain, effectively forcing him to concede. “Let’s be gracious in defeat,” he told his supporters Tuesday night.


It was hubris to think this would work in California. But Elder did Democrats — and democracy — a sort of favor by shooting his shot anyway. By preemptively trotting out a version of 2020’s Big Lie — even as polls increasingly showed Newsom with a safe, if not forbidding lead — Elder exposed the coded meaning of the GOP’s talking points about “election integrity” and its unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud: Democratic wins are inherently illegitimate because the Democratic Party’s more urban, more multicultural coalition doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, count. If it wasn’t clear before that this has become the Republican Party’s animating principle, it ought to be clear now.

An incumbent who can put up Newsom’s numbers and handily out-fundraise the opposition doesn’t need to cheat to win. By accusing California Democrats of cheating anyway, Elder has given away the game.

Nobody, left, right or center, expressly disagrees with the political principle that democratic authority rests with the American people. But we do disagree about what that means. As Republicans see it, Democrats aren’t American enough — not White enough, not Christian enough, not rural enough, not nostalgic enough about America’s past — to fully count. It’s no coincidence that Republican allegations of voter fraud have focused on cities — Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia — with substantial Black constituencies and often run by Black Democrats.


The implication? Because the Democratic body politic lacks an authentic American identity, the Democratic base lacks the moral basis for citizenship and the right to share equally in democratic power. It follows from this bent logic that Democrats disenfranchise real Americans — Republicans — every time they show up at the polls. It then follows that any election Democrats win must lack “integrity.”

Republicans would surely deny that suppression, not integrity, is their real aim, but that denial would leave them without sufficient explanation for the raft of voter suppression laws they’ve pushed in the absence of widespread or systemic Democratic voter fraud, or the fervor with which so many of them tolerated, if not backed, the Big Lie. As a Black American, Elder no doubt would deny that he aims to suppress the vote. But another way to look at it is that unfounded accusations of Democratic voter fraud have become so central to the GOP pitch that, as a Republican vying for office, he was no exception.

Elder’s Trump-like enthusiasm for sowing distrust in the system and seeding doubt in the legitimacy of Democratic victories illustrates the prevalence and depth of Republicans’ hostility to competing with Democrats on a level playing field: Indeed, if GOP figures are willing to spread baseless claims about their partisan rivals in a state as blue as California, just consider what they might be willing to do in states like Georgia and Texas, where Republicans have been furiously legislating to make elections less free and less fair to stem the demographic, and democratic, tide.

“We may have defeated Trump,” Newsom said in his victory speech, “but Trumpism is not dead in this country.” As Newsom strategist Sean Clegg explained earlier this week, “We have a democratic party and an anti-democratic party.” Elder’s anti-democratic shenanigans during the campaign were “a preview of coming attractions,” Clegg argued. “We’re going to see the same thing in 2022 and the same thing in 2024.”


In the short run, things look bleak: The Supreme Court refuses to come to the rescue of America’s still-young experiment in inclusive democracy. Solid voting rights and election reform legislation could do the trick, but the bills circulating through the halls of Congress can’t survive a Republican Senate filibuster.

Thanks, though, to Elder’s attempt at running the Big Lie playbook in a race that was a Democrat’s to lose, it’s clearer than ever that trumped-up fraud claims aren’t just the hallmark of Trump, or an anomalous feature of a particularly contentious election year. Denying the legitimacy of Democratic victories has become a core Republican tactic and reflects a calcifying worldview hostile to pluralistic democracy. Anyone who doesn’t see it now is choosing not to.