To recklessly throw around claims of voting fraud is to play a dangerous game that could cause lasting harm to our democracy.

Yet politicians from the White House to the local level are indulging in that game more and more. Social media and casual conversation cheer them on.

NPR pointed out a recent high-profile example last week: Asked about the absentee ballot tampering in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District that has prompted a new election, President Donald Trump gave an answer designed to confuse. Saying he condemns “any voter fraud,” the president went on to talk not about the improprieties surrounding the thrown-out election of Republican Mark Harris but rather the unsubstantiated claims of “a million fraudulent votes” in California.

Despite such frequently repeated claims of massive problems, the evidence shows that outright voter fraud is rare in this country.

What happened in Bladen County is noteworthy also because it doesn’t look much like the fears that are usually raised by inflammatory rhetoric about voter fraud: that hordes of illegal immigrants or people using names of dead voters are going to the polls.

Rather than worrying about actual absentee ballot tampering, some Republicans in the North Carolina legislature have been using false and vague charges of voter fraud to try to win support for suppressing minority voters.

As the NPR report noted, politicians often use charges of “fraud” to confuse the issue when what they’re really worried about is people whose voting choices they might not like. They are, in short, afraid of democracy.

People in both parties can play the game. Some use emotionally loaded words such as “purge” to exaggerate such procedures as challenging registrations.

The danger is that Americans will begin to have serious doubts about the democratic process and the results of our elections. And if their candidate loses, people might conclude that the election was rigged. Then what happens?

We’re already seeing the hard-won gains in voting rights for minorities being eroded because of fears.

The country is deeply divided.

We have to contend with Russians and others manipulating social media to make us lose faith in our system.

We don’t need our political leaders further whipping up divisions and doubts with reckless and misleading rhetoric.

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