Let’s talk about voter fraud! I want to start with a basic point.
Okay, that was a short one.
Wait, what was that? You need more? Okay, fine.
Voter fraud is less prevalent than shark attacks. That means Jaws is more plausible than a Donald Trump stump speech. Now that I think about it, that isn’t a shock.
Of course, shark attacks are another example of things people believe are more common than they actually are. Same with terrorism. And crime.
When the modern television media discusses an issue with breathless energy – if they refer to a problem as a “crisis” or an “epidemic,” then there’s a better than even chance it’s not actually worth panicking over.
Chicken Little said the sky is falling.
Chicken a L’Orange is running for President on the idea that everything else is collapsing, too. Except of course for climate change. That’s just something the Chinese invented to create a trade imbalance and import hordes of Muslims and something, something, mumble, trail off…. Whatever. Build a wall!
The point is, we all recognize our media thrives – even simply survives – on spectacle. On large-scale events. On things that get our attention. Rarely is it that a telegenic talking head with spectacular white teeth smiles that gleaming smile and tells us that the national debt is indeed rising, however, debt-to-GDP ratio is a more important indicator than the total amount, that the ratio is currently holding at manageable levels, that the annual deficit has been cut each year by the Obama Administration, that debt and the deficit aren’t the same thing, and that deficit spending can actually be good for the economy (in reasonable doses).
Whew! Let me catch my breath.
Yep, I can already feel your eyes glazing over with each word of that obnoxiously long run-on sentence. And so did TV news. They would be more likely to report, “The national debt has reached a record high. Republicans blame out of control spending. Back to you, Kent.”
If they can squeeze in a quick video of some politician using hyperbolic language to decry the issue, all the better. Then on to the latest shark attack.
Voter fraud is something similar. Aspects of the media certainly deserve some blame for whetting the public imagination about this topic. But the real blame goes to…
Nope, not Donald Trump. At least he’s not how it started.
It’s his party. It’s people like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who spent most of the last 20 years telling everyone around Kansas and Missouri that we need to tighten voter ID laws to keep “illegals” from voting. Because a person who is in the country illegally is likely to risk exposure by casting a single vote. Because in Kobach’s mind, that makes sense. Or, more likely, it makes sense to scare people into voting for him with this issue.
Starting from the 1993 Voter Registration Act (the “motor voter” bill), the Republican Party has brought up the dangers of voter fraud on a regular basis. They often did so using rather unsubtle dog whistle language, implying fraud was more likely among minority voters. And as we know, most minority voters over the last couple decades are more likely to vote Democratic.
Major political figures in Indiana, Texas, Missouri, North Carolina, Illinois, and several other states, have conducted “investigations” into allegations of voter fraud. Many candidates have run for office vowing to put an end to this epidemic. Old records, sloppy recordkeeping, and filing errors have led to legitimate issues with the voter rolls, requiring cleanup in many states. But the actual number of real fraud committed because of those problems has been infinitesimal.
Massive voter purges in Florida in 2000 arguably led to the eventual (and real) crisis in that year’s presidential contest.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott alleged fraud in his own state, with little actual evidence.
Political mercenary Dick Morris claimed more than a million incidents of voter fraud in 2012 – making his estimate of voter fraud around 1-in-100. Claims like those helped inspire voter laws that directly discriminated against legitimately registered African American voters, especially in North Carolina.
From 2002, up to today, 16 states have passed restrictive laws officially designed to reduce the risk of voter fraud. However, instead of preventing fraud, they just make it harder for people without state IDs to vote. This tends to affect older voters, minority voters, and new citizens. Several states reduced the number of available polling places, forcing older and poorer citizens to have to travel longer distances and wait in longer lines in order to cast a ballot. This is already clearly unfair to many citizens. However, it becomes even more obvious that it’s a naked stab at disenfranchisement when one investigates real examples of voter fraud.
Here’s the actual truth:
Out of the last BILLION (that’s a 1 followed by nine zeroes, folks) votes cast, only 31 actual confirmed and documented cases of voter fraud have been found. 31 out of a billion. Another study pegged it at 35 out of 800 million, but the general numbers remain the same. Remember what I said about sharks? Forget that – lightning is far more likely to strike any individual than voter fraud is likely to occur in the United States.
Don’t put that kite down just yet, Franklin. There’s more.
The aforementioned Kobach, who exists in Kansas mostly to be a public scold and electoral fearmonger, concluded an investigation of 84 million records in 2013. He found the potential for upwards of 120,000 duplicate voters, based on names and dates of birth. This could certainly be problematic. However, potential doesn’t necessarily translate to reality. Out of 84 million records, and 120,000 potential issues, just 14 cases were actually referred to for prosecution.
14 out of 84,000,000, from the great fraud fighter. That’s a one-in-six-million-chance, for those who don’t remember 2nd grade math. That’s about half the chance one has of drowning while visiting the beach.
I’m going to repeat this again, because it really is the only important part:
But for years now, a major plank of the second largest American political party has been to tell you that it does. And that’s helped soften people up for rhetoric like what we see and hear from Donald Trump.
Americans are much more likely to get news now from social media feeds. These are often focused on their particular friends and family, frequently sharing their interests and beliefs, (sometimes) inadvertently filtering out other perspectives. An ideological echo chamber is created, making it tougher to be swayed by new data.
Donald Trump says the country is falling apart. One of his supporters might hear that and agree. “Well hell,” they would respond, “I just got laid off last week.”
Trump says crime is at a 45 year high. “That makes sense. All I see on the news is shootings and war.”
Trump says the Democrats are trying to steal the election. “Well, sure, I mean, we have to be winning, everyone I know likes Trump. Look at the size of his crowds!”
It follows the framework that this follower has already set. Trump is just confirming what he already believes.
It doesn’t matter that AMERICAN ELECTORAL FRAUD ISN’T A THING. It doesn’t matter that the logistics of actually committing impactful voter fraud are daunting, with a very low reward to risk ratio. It doesn’t matter that mass disenfranchisement is far more dangerous to democracy than a one in six million chance of fraud.
None of that matters when none of that information is getting in the bubble.
People are already suspicious of information that doesn’t confirm their biases. When it takes time to parse and analyze, it’s just not worth the effort.
Eleven days from the 2016 election, and Donald Trump is behind in almost every poll. Most independent analyses give him between a 5 and 15 percent chance of winning. Most polls have him 5-10 points behind. Barring an unprecedented comeback, Donald Trump won’t even make the election particularly close.
However, he’s also riled up plenty of his supporters, many of whom won’t believe a word of what anyone says when he loses. If Trump continues throwing out accusations of fraud, regardless of evidence, he could stir up some stupidity.
It’s hard to run a democratic system when people don’t have faith in the process or institutions.