This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
President Donald Trump and his campaign have filed more than two dozen lawsuits around the country seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the election. His unsubstantiated claims of fraud have mostly been leveled at voters in urban centers of the states with the closest vote margins. The strategy, while so far ineffective, makes clear a larger goal of Trump’s. According to an analysis of his litigation by Votebeat, the counties the Trump campaign and his supporters have targeted with postelection lawsuits have the highest Black or Latino populations in their states. The counties Trump sued in Pennsylvania, for example, were Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Allegheny, Chester, Centre, and Northampton. That includes four of the Blackest counties in Pennsylvania and, together, accounts for more than 74 percent of the state’s Black population.
Election experts have repeatedly called Trump’s effort to discount the election results a public relations stunt to save his image and to defend himself from the reality of his loss. But what hasn’t been acknowledged as widely is Trump’s more pernicious goal: to scapegoat Black and Latino voters for his loss, and to implicitly argue that their votes shouldn’t decide elections.
“It’s just a continuation of a pattern of denigrating people of color and Black people especially,” said Anne Houghtaling, deputy director of the Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who works on voting issues. “The fact that the president is lying about how this process works and trying to say whose votes don’t count is just wrong.”
In Pennsylvania, Trump’s approach was not just to question votes in the most Democratic counties. If that were his strategy, he would have also filed legal challenges in Lehigh or Lackawanna counties—largely white counties that also voted for Biden.
Instead, Trump’s focus on locations where people of color primarily live has been relentless. Trump has brought litigation in six of the seven states where the vote margin between him and President-elect Joe Biden is less than 3 points (he won the seventh state, North Carolina, so has not accused its voters of fraud). In all six of those states, Trump’s campaign has targeted the counties with the highest Black populations.
The Trump team is complementing this legal strategy with racist rhetoric. Two days after Election Day, Trump said in a press conference that “Detroit and Philadelphia are known as two of the most corrupt political places anywhere in our country—easily.” It was just the first example of the president and his close allies questioning the integrity of the vote in two of the largest cities in swing states known for their large Black populations. Since then, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani has accused voters in Camden, New Jersey (a 40 percent Black city), of streaming across the Delaware River to vote in Philadelphia.
In Michigan, where Biden’s margin of victory is 13 times what Trump’s was in 2016, Trump and his supporters have aggressively gone after Black voters. On Tuesday, the two Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers resisted certifying the county’s vote. Monica Palmer, the board’s chairperson and one of two Republicans who initially voted not to certify, said she’d be open to certifying all the results in “communities other than Detroit,” a city that is 80 percent Black. Palmer claimed that Detroit’s unbalanced precincts (with discrepancies between how many named people voted and the actual count of votes) made her hesitant to certify the votes, but critics pointed out that Livonia, Michigan, a largely white area of the county, had even more unbalanced poll books.
Meanwhile, as Palmer and other Republicans targeted Detroit, more than 56 percent of voters in neighboring Oakland County voted for Biden, but Trump is not calling to throw out their votes. Oakland is 13.9 percent Black, compared with Wayne County, which is almost 40 percent Black.
“Really the themes that we see, that persist, are this: Black people are corrupt, Black people are incompetent, and Black people can’t be trusted,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said during a press call the week after the election. “That’s the narrative that is continually espoused by the Trump campaign and their allies in these lawsuits.”
In Wisconsin, Trump recently amended his call for a statewide recount, instead asking for recounts in Milwaukee and Dane counties. Milwaukee holds the state’s largest percentage of Black and Latino voters, and Dane County, home to the city of Madison, has the state’s fourth highest Black population. Together, they hold almost three-quarters of Wisconsin’s Black population.
“No surprise, Donald Trump has been consistent,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Wednesday. “He’ll go after communities of color, and he’ll go after communities where there are lots of Democrats. And he doesn’t care.”
Biden’s margin of victory over Trump in Wisconsin is 26,608 votes. Recounts are unlikely to change the vote totals by more than a few hundred votes. (In 2016, when Green Party candidate Jill Stein called for a Wisconsin recount, Trump’s vote total grew by 131 votes.) But Trump is still intent on recounting votes in the state’s Blackest county, and another county that is known for its passionate advocacy for Black Lives Matter and racial equity.
In a lawsuit filed in Georgia on Nov. 11 seeking to exclude all votes in six counties because of alleged issues with absentee vote counting, the Republican plaintiffs named Clayton County, which, at 72.8 percent Black, has the state’s highest percentage of Black people. The lawsuit also names DeKalb, Chatham, Fulton, Gwinnett, and Cobb counties, which along with Clayton account for almost half of the state’s Black population.
The attacks come despite the fact that the cities at the center of Trump’s crusade did not cost him the election. Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee all voted very similarly to how they did in 2016. They were not where Biden picked up support. In fact, Black voter turnout was down in Milwaukee from 2016, and Biden’s margin of victory in Philadelphia’s predominantly Black neighborhoods lagged behind Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. It was voters outside the cities, in places like predominantly white Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, and Kent County, Michigan, who swung their states to Biden.
It’s not just Black voters Trump is blaming, either. In Arizona and Nevada, Trump’s litigation is targeting the heavily Latino counties surrounding Phoenix and Las Vegas. And in Wisconsin, he’s also trying to exclude votes from Menominee County, which is 82 percent Native American, from being counted because of alleged fraud.
Scapegoating Black voters for his loss is a fitting end of his term for a president who has shown his disdain for Black people throughout the last four years, Houghtaling said. Trump made false, racist comments about Rep. Elijah Cummings’ district in Baltimore, degraded female and Black legislators, spoke negatively about countries in Africa, and said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville, Virginia, white nationalist march, among other examples.
“This is on brand for him,” she said.
Trump seems unlikely to concede anytime soon and will likely play the victim in his white-aggrievement blame game for as long as he can. While Republicans have long thrown allegations of voter fraud at nonwhite populations, Trump is going a step further and claiming it cost him the election—just like he claimed “illegal immigrants” cost him the popular vote in 2016. By doing so, he’s ending his presidency with one last spasm of racial hostility.