In the fall of 2002, just over a year after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft summoned a group of federal prosecutors to Washington. He had a new mission he wanted them to focus on: voter fraud. “Votes have been bought, voters intimidated and ballot boxes stuffed,” he told the attendees of the Justice Department’s inaugural Voting Integrity Symposium. “Voters have been duped into signing absentee ballots believing they were applications for public relief. And the residents of cemeteries have infamously shown up at the polls on election day.” This might seem an unusually dark portrait of America’s electoral system, coming from the nation’s top prosecutor. But Ashcroft spoke from personal experience. In 2000, as a U.S. Senator from Missouri, he lost his re-election bid to a dead man. His opponent, Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash three weeks before Election Day. It was too late to remove the governor’s name from the ballot, so his wife, Jean, announced she would serve his term. Mel Carnahan won by 49,000 votes. Ashcroft and his fellow Missouri Republicans were outraged. Skeptical that voters might simply have preferred any Carnahan to him, Ashcroft and other Republicans accused Democrats in St. Louis of trying to steal the election by keeping the polls open later than usual. They dubbed it a “major criminal enterprise”. That December, George W. Bush nominated the out-of-work Ashcroft to be his first attorney general.
Ashcroft didn’t mention any of this in his speech, but the subtext was hard to ignore. “There is nothing funny about winning an election with stolen votes,” he said. “All of us pay the price for voting fraud.” To combat this, he declared, the Justice Department had launched a new “voting access and integrity initiative.” This was not the kind of announcement that was grabbing headlines at the time. Much of the country’s attention was focused on the the mounting discussion of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. But voter fraud was a preoccupation of conservatives, who had nursed a variety of conspiracy theories stemming from the disputed 2000 election that put Bush in office.
… Eleven years after the books were closed on Ashcroft’s probe another voter fraud investigation is gearing up. Once again, it is being driven by a Republican president who is convinced that he was robbed of the popular vote by a massive conspiracy, larger perhaps than even Bush’s administration had contemplated. In late November, Donald Trump tweeted: “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” In January, he told Congressional leaders three to five million people voted illegally and cost him the popular vote. He didn’t stop there. Trump promised to form a commission, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, to investigate. In a March 22 interview with Time magazine Trump said, “I think I will be proved right” about the three million illegal votes. He elaborated: “When I say that, I mean mostly they register wrong, in other words, for the votes, they register incorrectly, and/or illegally. And they then vote. You have tremendous numbers of people. In fact I’m forming a committee on it.”