In this post, the Ash Center’s Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy Miles Rapoport shares thoughts on how President Donald Trump is taking right wing voter fraud allegations to the next level. Laying out the recent attacks on voting rights and the response by advocates, Rapoport calls for a renewed intellectual and political effort to protect voting rights from the fraudulent fraud allegations.
By Miles Rapoport
On January 23rd, Donald Trump said to a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders that he had only lost the popular vote in the election because 3-5 million illegal votes had been cast, all for Hillary Clinton, who incidentally won the popular election by 2.8 million votes. This was a line that he had repeated many times as President-elect, but now, as President, it had a whole different force. And, he said, he will be calling for a major investigation of the issue of voter fraud, and ways to prevent it. And so began the next round of the battle over the issue of fraudulent voting by people—citizens and not—seeking to manipulate the outcomes of elections.
Trump followed that statement with a number of other comments and tweets with the same message. A fair amount of skepticism was expressed initially, including by Republicans. Since then, several outlets reported that the administration was backing down from the assertion, and Senator Mitch McConnell said that no federal resources would be used for such an investigation. But on February 5th, the President told Bill O’Reilly that he is going to appoint a commission headed by Vice President Mike Pence. It is at this point very unclear what actions will ensue from all this, but, as has become clearer and clearer, it is a mistake to assume that these kinds of statements are random toss-offs.
All of this talk is hardly new. The charge of illegal voter fraud has been a staple of the right wing and of Republican strategists for decades, and since 2000 has been feverishly pursued by conservative think tanks and organizations, as well as by lawyers in the Bush Justice Department under the reign of Hans von Spakovsky—then head of the Voting Rights Division, now Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and likely to land back at the Justice Department soon.
It has also been repeated in state legislatures around the country and has been an consistent theme of the right wing’s legislative arm, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Couincil). Numerous states ‘responded’ by passing strict voter identification laws, with 10 states having put stricter photo ID laws in place in just since 2010. In North Carolina, the specter of illegal voting was the pretext for the state’s omnibus voter suppression law, including a strict photo ID requirement. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found that this law aimed ‘with surgical precision’ at diminishing the African American vote.
But just as the issue has been pursued relentlessly on the right, the pushback and resistance has been strong, sustained, and in many cases, successful. Voting Rights lawyers won a number of court victories during 2015 and 2016 on a variety of elections issues. On photo ID laws specifically, hard-fought battles resulted in successful outcomes for plaintiffs including in North Carolina, Texas, and North Dakota. Several ballot initiatives have set aside some of the efforts at voter suppression. And it is important to remember that in many states, real progress has been made at opening up access to voting, including expansion of early voting, same day registration, and the newest breakthrough, Automatic Voter Registration by state agencies.
The battle has been joined intellectually as well. Numerous studies have shown that the amount of voter fraud by voters is statistically insignificant, bordering on zero. A well-known study by the Pew Research Center in 2012, cited by Sean Spicer, found no evidence of voter fraud, and its author, David Becker, said that election integrity in 2016 was better than in 2012, recently tweeting “Zero evidence of fraud.”
Professor Lori Minnite, in her 2010 book The Myth of Voter Fraud, reviewed and refuted numerous historical cases of fraud. And Professor Justin Levitt, currently head of the voting rights division in the Department of Justice, found in a study in 2014 that of 1 billion votes cast over several election cycles, only 31 votes could possibly have been cast illegally in person.
In fact, the evidence of voter fraud’s absence has been so convincing that the press and editorial boards of the country have considered it a mostly closed issue. Even on the right, the justification for voting restrictions in recent years often shifted to issues like cost-saving and administrative ease, with those arguments replacing the less and less credible cries of fraud.
But this myth refuses to die, and so it is certain that the battle will continue. While we wait for the next shoe to drop, good signs of thoughtful resistance have already emerged.
- When Trump made his statements right after the election, Secretaries of State of both parties were quick to step forward and defend the integrity of the election process, in their states and around the country. Secretaries are meeting this month in Washington, and hopefully their rational voices will continue to be heard.
- Recently, a group of 600 political science professors from a variety of technical fields signed a letter refuting the evidence from a 2014 article on potential non-citizen voting that Trump referenced in his statements, arguing that the article could not be cited as credible evidence of non-citizen voting.
- Just this week, Professor Charles Stewart at MIT, with support from the Hewlett Foundation and other foundations, announced the creation of a new Elections Data and Science Center, designed to do scientific studies on election procedures and results and have a solid statistical basis for use by policymakers and the election field generally.
- Voting rights attorneys and organizations have been meeting to work on a variety of issues, both reactively and proactively, and dealing with a new Pence Commission on Voter Fraud will certainly be a part of those discussions.
The challenges to our democracy are coming faster and more furiously than hotel offers in a Trivago commercial. It would have been nice if the near-consensus on this particular argument could have held sway, and attention could be focused on a positive agenda for improving our voting processes and election administration. But it is evidently not to be. The response, both intellectually and politically, to the fraudulent evocation of voter fraud, will be needed now more than ever.
Miles Rapoport is a Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Previously, Rapoport was President of the independent grassroots organization Common Cause, and for 13 years, he headed the public policy center Demos. Rapoport served as Secretary of the State in Connecticut from 1995-1999, and served ten years in the Connecticut legislature.