Atiba R. Ellis

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Despite the antidiscrimination frameworks contained in the constitutional and statutory protections for the right to vote, access to the American ballot box is generally perceived as heavily contested. More precisely, many right-to-vote advocates (and their popular supporters) believe that the right to vote is in a crisis of exclusion so extreme that it represents a resurgence of Jim Crow racial exclusion from the franchise. Advocates for election integrity initiatives and their supporters claim that because of impending threats by “illegal voters” who will distort election results, initiatives like voter identification laws, proof of citizenship laws, and voter purges are necessary, else the integrity of the electoral process will be destroyed.

These views are diametrically opposed and suggest that what we know about the status of the right to vote itself is at stake. One view is premised on seeing the ecosystem of democracy as replicating intersecting racial and class-driven exclusion. The other sees the world as dominated by the threat of illegal voters and supposes that the threat of voter fraud is an existential threat to American election integrity. That such divergent views exist on exactly what the crisis of voting rights is, suggests that there is a fault in the way we obtain and order our knowledge regarding American democratic practices. Our knowledge about how to understand the right to vote is a contested issue. ...

In the years since this argument, the meme of voter fraud has been amplified17 and augmented in the far more dense (and self-selecting) political ecosystem that is Internet-driven American political discourse. The meme has served as justification for not only voting rights policy changes, like voter identification laws, but also to connect the threat of so-called “illegal voters” to issues ranging from proof of citizenship requirements, to felon disenfranchisement, the census, and the Electoral College. The evolved, weaponized, amplified voter fraud meme has created an epistemic crisis—a crisis of how we know—for the law of democracy.

This short Article will consider this crisis. The Article will argue that the meme has evolved providing an “alternative facts” explanation for voting threats to the creation of a worldview that underscores an ideology of exclusion of those unworthy to exercise the franchise by expanding the narrative of the persons and communities who pose a threat to American elections. The Article will turn next to explaining my claims about the voter fraud meme and connect that to how it consolidates political power. It will then examine how the meme has evolved and amplified in recent years and consider its ramifications for upcoming election cycles. And then the Article will end by considering the larger, epistemological threat that such meme-driven thinking poses to our democracy, and how the law of democracy is ill-suited to address such problems. But to adequately explain this point, I must first draw on my prior research to explain the sense in which I mean a “meme” and how it relates to voter fraud talk.

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