ATLANTA -- Republicans seem to believe that if they lost an election, somebody cheated. That delusion not only has led them to chase after unsubstantiated rumors of fake voters, but also to put in place unconstitutional restrictions at the ballot box. Harsh voter ID laws have suppressed voting by people of color around the country.
Now, the GOP's paranoid insistence that countless votes have been illegally cast has mired them in legal and political quicksand. It was the party's determination to prosecute voter fraud, even if it didn't exist, that forced some conscientious U.S. attorneys out of office.
The clumsy politicization of the Justice Department has created turmoil in its ranks. Democrats have issued subpoenas to try to get a straight story about the dismissal of competent attorneys such as New Mexico prosecutor David C. Iglesias; meanwhile, high-ranking Justice Department appointees have headed for the exits.
All this might have been avoided if Republicans were able to face up to a bitter truth: They lose elections because voters don't agree with their politics. I find it hard to believe that Karl Rove doesn't know that. Surely, he's well-paid and highly respected in GOP circles because he grasps the essential realities of electoral politics.
Well, perhaps not. The Bush/Cheney/Rove axis of mendacity has dealt in distortions and dissembling for so long that it's not clear whether they are able to recognize the truth any longer. Faced with a well-researched scholarly report that concluded "there is little polling place fraud," the GOP-dominated Election Assistance Commission simply changed the report. The final version of the report suggests that many experts believe substantial voter fraud exists.
Similarly, prominent Republican politicians were furious when Mr. Iglesias refused to prosecute cases of election fraud. He happened to be something of an expert on the subject; he had set up a special task force to look into allegations of fake voters and was asked to teach at a "voting integrity seminar" designed to educate other prosecutors.
But Mr. Iglesias wasn't about to prosecute cases when there was virtually no evidence of guilt. As he wrote in a newspaper column, "What my critics ... have asserted is reprehensible - namely, that I should have proceeded without having proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The public has a right to believe that prosecution decisions are made on legal, not political, grounds."
Why have leading Republicans invested so much credibility in spreading the canard of widespread election fraud? They use that fiction to push highly restrictive voter ID laws, which tend to block ballot access for poorer black and brown citizens. It's no coincidence that those voters are also more likely to support Democrats. Voter ID laws may not shave off more than a few hundred votes, but in close races, that may be enough for GOP victories.
In Georgia, the legislature has eagerly taken up the cause, passing bills that require citizens to have state-sponsored IDs to cast a ballot. That would make voting difficult for many rural and elderly Georgians who don't have driver's licenses. (That's why federal courts have so far barred the requirement from taking effect.)
According to one study, states with highly restrictive voter ID laws saw turnout fall by about 3 percent in the 2004 presidential election - and by two to three times as much among minorities. Those numbers may hearten Republican strategists.
If they were smart, though, they'd take a good look at the 2006 midterm results and see that their voter suppression strategy isn't yielding the results they'd hoped for. They lost control of Congress and several governorships. Want to win elections? Try attracting voters instead of repelling them. Try new policies with broad appeal.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.