While some have criticized Donald Trump’s predictions of a “rigged” election in favor of Hillary Clinton, the New York Times went inflammatory on Monday’s front page, playing the race card on the candidate by dismissing suspicions of vote fraud as just anti-black fear-mongering: “Trump, Claims of ‘Rigged’ Vote And Issues of Racial Politics.”
The fretful text box: “Election law officials fear a self-fulfilling prophecy, all but ensuring fraud claims.” Reporters Maggie Haberman and Matt Flegenheimer found “alarmed” Republicans and outraged Democrats, and fanned the racial flames early and often.
As he seeks to revive his embattled candidacy, Donald J. Trump has seized on a new argument to rally his supporters and to explain away a possible defeat in November: that Democrats are preparing to exploit weak voter identification laws to win a “stolen election” through fraudulent voting.
The claim has spurred outrage among Democrats and has alarmed some Republicans who worry his tactics will backfire, angering minority voters and threatening the party’s chances in close races down the ballot.
Since 2010, Republican governors and Republican-held state legislatures have fought for stricter voter identification laws, which Democrats argue are intended to hinder turnout by the poorest voters, many of them black and Hispanic, who tend to vote Democratic.
But Mr. Trump’s language has moved beyond his party’s call for rigid identification requirements and the unfounded claims that polls are “skewed” to predictions of outright theft of the November election. And his warnings have been cast in increasingly urgent and racially suggestive language, hinting that the only legitimate outcome in certain states would be his victory.
The report focused on Philadelphia, along with a photo caption that read “Voting in Philadelphia in 2012, when some conservatives made unsubstantiated claims of fraud.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump has said the race could be snatched from him there. His campaign is urging people to sign up as election workers to watch voters as they cast their ballots on Nov. 8, fueling concerns about voter intimidation on Election Day.
“The only way we can lose, in my opinion -- I really mean this, Pennsylvania -- is if cheating goes on,” Mr. Trump said at a rally on Aug. 12 in Altoona. A local Republican official introducing Mr. Trump was more specific, pointing to Philadelphia, a city with a large African-American population. That came days after Mr. Trump told a rally in Wilmington, N.C., that without strict voter identification laws, people would be “voting 15 times for Hillary.”
Election law officials have expressed concern that Mr. Trump’s incendiary words will create a self-fulfilling prophecy, all but ensuring claims of fraud from his poll watchers and a delegitimization of the election results should Mrs. Clinton win.
“It went from being laughable to be what I consider to be dangerous,” said Richard L. Hasen, a professor and election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law.
Mr. Hasen said that while it initially seemed Mr. Trump was merely seeking an early scapegoat for a possible loss, his language had taken a darker turn. A Pew Research Center survey released last week showed that 51 percent of Mr. Trump’s supporters have little or no confidence in the accuracy of the vote count nationally, a drastic change from supporters of the Republican nominees in 2004 and 2008.
After a brief detour to Bush vs. Gore in 2000, where no blame was assigned to Gore supporters claiming a stolen election, the Times painted conservatives as sore losers in 2012 and dismissing the very idea of voter fraud.
After the 2012 presidential election, some conservatives made claims of voter fraud in Pennsylvania that were never substantiated. Mark Braden, a Republican election lawyer, said that while there had been cases of voter fraud over decades, “the election system in the United States generally works extremely well, and fraud, although real, is modest.”
Demonstrable episodes of widespread individual fraud have been hard to come by. According to a study by the nonpartisan Brennan Center in 2007, “by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.”
The Times let the Clinton campaign play the race card.
Marc Elias, the main counsel to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and a lawyer involved in cases against a string of strict voter identification laws in states such as North Carolina and Virginia in recent years, called such talk fear-mongering aimed at depressing minority turnout.
The reporters brought up separate conspiracies, including one instigated by Hillary supporters (though good luck getting the paper to acknowledge that).
After years of conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birthplace -- propagated by Mr. Trump, among others who have sought to delegitimize the president’s rise to power -- Democrats fear that the voting claims could resonate among opponents of Mrs. Clinton long after Election Day, should she win.
Last week, Mrs. Clinton took her campaign to the heart of a neighborhood that election conspiracy theorists have viewed suspiciously: West Philadelphia, a predominantly black area where, in 2012, Mr. Obama captured 100 percent of the vote in some precincts.
Mr. Trump’s charge of prospective fraud has rankled black voters and Democratic leaders, by turns calling to mind a painful history of racially charged voter intimidation and inspiring bemusement at the notion that Mr. Trump thinks he might be able to win the support of minorities on the merits -- if only he could root out the chicanery.
Mr. Braden, the Republican election lawyer, said that sweeping talk about fraud could backfire in tight Senate races in which Republicans end up ahead by a slim margin.