Three weeks out from polling day, Donald Trump has called the election for Hillary Clinton by alleging widespread voter fraud before most people have cast their ballots. At last night's debate Trump refused to say he would accept the election result, having earlier this week conjured the bogey of a zombie army of dead voters rising from its necropolis to spook his chances. Wisely, he's discounted the possibility that his impending defeat has anything to do with having alienated most US voters by his mendacity, bigotry, sexual predation, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, manifest unfitness for public office and encyclopedic ignorance of public policy. Maybe he should call in Russian election monitors to ensure fair play. Responders have noted that verified cases of voter fraud are rare in US elections; their tendency is to infer that all's well with US democracy. This is a non-sequitur.

Take the judicial coup d'état that handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush, with consequences that continue to be felt in, say, Mosul. Then there's the 2010 Citizens United ruling that paved the way for political action committees, often bankrolled by billionaires, to buy influence in elections. It's still unclear whether Trump's candidacy, which takes the process to its natural next step, owes more to business calculation or megalomania: it's a form of vertical integration, where the middleman is bypassed by conflating the buyer and seller of political influence. At congressional level, Republican state majorities' gerrymandering of electoral districts, masterminded by Bush's crony Karl Rove as part of the REDMAP project, is well known. 'He who controls redistricting can control Congress,' Rove wrote in 2010. The result has been districts that would have flummoxed Hermann Rorschach, as with the egregious IL-4 in Illinois.

Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, areas of the country with particularly virulent records of voter exclusion should be subject to 'preclearance' (a form of judicial review before legislation was enacted) in order to gauge whether a proposed local change to voting rules would disadvantage African American voters. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Roberts Supreme Court ruled that 'coverage' (the stipulation in the VRA and its updates of where the preclearance requirement was to apply) was outdated; the day after the Shelby decision, North Carolina announced that it would move ahead with legislation requiring that voters show photo identification, a measure that disproportionately affects African Americans. Another well-worked ploy is to impose laborious verification procedures on polling day, forcing people to queue for hours and, with luck, give up and go home. About Shelby, Justice Roberts commented: 'Things have changed in the south.'

He's not kidding. As Lyndon Johnson said after signing the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, 'we [i.e. Democrats] have lost the South for a generation.' That now looks seriously optimistic. In the following decades, Southern white allegiance shifted from the Democrats to the GOP, to the point where the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant now relies heavily on good old boys tattooed with the Rebel flag. The GOP now entrenches its power by similar psephological chicanery to that practised for years by Democrats in the postbellum South. During the Jim Crow era, white supremacists, notably Democrats, devised myriad ways of keeping blacks off the electoral roll. A further irony of recent Republican gerrymandering is that it has exploited the VRA to concentrate the black vote in certain districts while creating borderline Republican majority districts elsewhere in the state: in the 2014 mid-terms, North Carolina Democrats won 44 per cent of the vote but only 23 per cent of the seats. As a ruse, it recalls the disingenuousness that led Southern slaveowners at the constitutional convention after independence to argue that black slaves were persons purely for the purpose of boosting their states' representation in Congress.

Now there's the further irony of the Republican nominee's claims of imminent electoral fraud. If lost on Trump and his clowder, it's unlikely to bypass African American voters. Pre-VRA white supremacist disenfranchisers expressed ideological racism as much as a wish for partisan electoral advantage. US democracy has made great strides since then. Now, rather than Democrats keeping blacks off the ballot for racial advantage, Republicans are keeping blacks off the ballot for political advantage.