In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, people attend a rally in support of President Donald Trump outside Thousand Oaks City Hall in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Credit: Ashley Landis / AP

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Once upon a time, giant airplanes landed on an isolated and poor Pacific island, bringing wondrous gifts, yielding the Cargo Cult.

Suddenly, during World War II, the American military arrived. A landing field was quickly laid out and aircraft flew in clothing and food the islanders had never seen. The cargo was military, but the islanders were also rewarded. The gifts transformed their lives, but only temporarily. As suddenly they had arrived, the Americans left.

The islanders believed that their visitors from the sky might return with more gifts. To encourage their return, the islanders built a runway, stationed a man in a hut beside it to guide the incoming flights, gave him a wooden headset that looked like the real thing and deployed a bamboo antenna.

Though the islanders wanted to believe that the cargo had been a celestial gift, there was no evidence of heavenly benevolence. With the end of the Pacific war, no plane ever came. The hopeful Cargo Cult survived, but its hopes were always disappointed. 

In 2020, some Donald Trump supporters claimed the election was rigged and their candidate had really won. But they had no evidence, only their own optimistic belief. Just like the islanders, even without evidence to support their belief, the Trump people persisted and became a cult.

But the true believers are not on a remote island, keeping their cult in isolation. They live in the heart of the American political system and their beliefs drive them to seek to influence that system. 

Part of the reason for the survival of their belief in the stolen election is momentum. You can start from believing that Trump is so great that logically he simply could not have lost. Whether the ritual chant is “Build the Wall” or “Stop the Steal,” it keeps the momentum going.

But a cult’s belief in Donald Trump as a political savior only partly explains the stolen election movement and concerns about balloting. The underlying driver is the Republican Party that can use the cult as cover for its own long-term efforts to skew elections.

The GOP operates on the strategy that reducing the size of the electorate brings it victory. Fewer people say they are Republicans than those who are Democrats. The Republicans are thought to be more likely to make the effort to vote, so the GOP priority can become voter suppression of typical Democratic backers rather than their own get-out-the-vote success.

In 2020, the strategy failed and, while Trump did well, Joe Biden did better, getting more votes than any previous presidential candidate. The Trump campaign with the help of many GOP leaders claimed in key states that voting results had been falsified. But they could find no evidence.

The most classic failure occurred in Georgia, where a Republican secretary of state supervises elections. Though a Trump voter, he found no evidence that Trump had defeated Biden. He resisted direct pressure from Trump to change the outcome.

The GOP has found ways to boost its chances. Where it controls a state legislature, it lays out congressional districts to favor Republicans. In 2020, Ohio gave Democrat Biden 45 percent of the vote but Democrats won only four of 16 districts. This year, the Democrats have a clear path to only two seats.

African-Americans and other minorities are targeted. Easier access to voting and reasonable registration requirements have brought out more minority voters. When access is made more difficult, their participation is expected to suffer.

The GOP tries to limit mail-in voting, a way to make access easier that aids Democratic voters.  By making it more difficult, Republicans seem to believe that their backers will go to the polls while Democrats won’t make the effort.

Another move by Republican state legislatures is to enact laws giving their party members complete control over election administration. Georgia has given its secretary of state such powers. 

The risk is that such officials will use their expanded powers to disallow and prevent Democratic voters from casting ballots or being counted. Still, some GOP candidates are already claiming that if they lose, the election may have been fixed. 

They may justify distorting the election system, in the belief, with little or no evidence, that the other side has also done it. That’s called “whataboutism.”

This year, the conduct of elections could again end up in court. This time it could be Democrats not Republicans bringing the complaints. What would happen if courts overturned House elections is not known. It is obvious, though, that faith in elections, already battered by the 2020 Trump campaign and candidate, would suffer.

The leading issues in the upcoming elections may be inflation and abortion. But perhaps the most important issue won’t appear on any ballot or be obvious to many voters – voting in our democracy.

Is the sticker that reads “I voted” in danger of becoming a rare collectible?

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.