Belief in Widespread Voter Fraud Is Even Worse Than QAnon or Birtherism

“Voter fraud” is an outlandish, preposterous conspiracy theory.

Oceans of pixels have been spent on the extraordinary efforts Republicans are undertaking to suppress the votes of students and people of color this election cycle from Florida to North Dakota to Georgia and elsewhere. It’s an open, unsubtle attempt to install the anti-majoritarian apartheid rule of an entrenched older, whiter and shrinking conservative electorate against the rising demographic tide of America’s diverse millennial future.

It is also well known that the ostensible reason for all the voter suppression is a myth: there is essentially no voter fraud on any significant scale. This is not to say that elections cannot be stolen in other ways both new and old: it is possible (though it is important to stress that there is no credible evidence of this having happened in recent American elections) for voting machines to be hacked, for vote totals to be manipulated and such. It is possible for an erroneous Supreme Court decision to stop legitimately cast votes from being fully counted, giving the presidency to the loser.  But the act of voter fraud that voter identification laws and aggressive voter roll purges are supposed to defend against, which is voter impersonation fraud, is incredibly rare.

Still, it’s not enough to simply cite statistics. First, conservatives distrust scientific findings, and beyond that conservatives tend to believe that it is happening, but it just hasn’t been found yet. Meanwhile, the political press treats the conservative belief in widespread voter fraud as a potentially legitimate fear, and conservative talking points about the issue as respectable if misguided.

This is maddening. It’s not just that academic studies show voter impersonation fraud doesn’t happen. It’s that for anyone with even a basic grasp of the mechanics of American elections, the situations and the conspiracies you would have to believe in order to give credence to widespread voter impersonation fraud make birthers and flat earth conspiracy theories seem reasonable. Believing this stuff doesn’t just run contrary to established fact: it’s lunacy of the highest order.

Let’s consider the basics. While there are some variations from state to state, in most cases the process works like this: 1) you register to vote; 2) in order to register, you must supply a host of information, including notably either a driver’s license number or social security number; 3) those registration forms are checked against appropriate state databases before going on the rolls; 4) voters show up to the polls and indicate their name and address, at which point the elections volunteer checks them off the rolls and hands them a ballot.

It’s true that some organizations have paid people to register voters, and sometimes those workers make up fake registrations to get paid without doing the job. But it should be obvious that these fake registrations will never make it to the rolls: if you register “Mikey M. Mouse” with a fake social security number, that will be caught very quickly. No one can impersonate Mr. Mouse and vote, because Mr. Mouse will never appear on the list to begin with. This is called voter registration fraud, and while it’s more common than voter impersonation fraud, it’s essentially always caught and has no impact whatsoever on election outcomes.

So let’s consider what a person would have to believe to think that there is an epidemic of voter impersonation fraud (typically in the conservative imagination by non-citizen immigrants.)

1) You would have to believe that thousands upon thousands of immigrants–most of whom don’t speak English–are in on a scheme cooked up by nefarious forces to go to hundreds of different polling places to lie about their identities to cast a single vote, when getting caught would entail years of jailtime and certain deportation;

2) You would have to believe that all these thousands of cleverly deceptive and well-organized non-citizens were all doing the work to vote for Democrats down the ballot in exchange for whatever compensation they were supposedly receiving, instead of doing the bare minimum and casting blank repetitive ballots;

3) You would have to believe that somehow every one of these thousands of mostly poor undocumented people maintained a universal code of silence and never told *anyone* about this alleged massive conspiracy, year after year, election cycle after election cycle, across dozens of states and hundreds of communities;

4) You would have to believe that the registrars and county clerks in all these counties somehow maintained large numbers of dead, moved or otherwise ineligible voters on the rolls, and were somehow delivering these identities to shadowy organizers for this mass impersonation campaign, at the risk of decades in jail and a nationwide scandal.

5) You would have to believe that all the volunteer election workers who manage the precinct lists are either in on the scheme or so incompetent they don’t realize that a 30-year-old Honduran immigrant isn’t a 90-year-old deceased homeowner.

6) You would have to believe that all of this is somehow being coordinated across gerrymandered suburban and rural districts and states, despite the fact that most immigrants live in urban areas where their votes would be essentially wasted at the state and federal level even if they could vote, and that elections officials in those contested areas are usually Republican.

7) You would have to believe that it’s more worth it and easier somehow for its perpetrators to engage in this massive, incredibly dangerous and complex conspiracy, rather than just turn out the far easier pool of young & eligible voters in these districts that Democrats still have such a hard time activating. If you’re going to illegally hire someone to impersonate a non-voter, why not just illegally hire the apathetic non-voters instead without all the additional, numbingly complex fraud?

One could say more here, but the point should already be clear. Not only does this sort of thing not happen, it’s ludicrous to even postulate that it might happen. It also, of course, presupposes a number of ugly and fantastical prejudices about immigrants and people of color.

These supposed schemes would be literally impossible to pull off without getting caught, the logistical effort to make them happen would far outstrip any potential electoral rewards, and the risk of failure would be catastrophic. And yet for some reason it’s treated as a credible fear and a legitimate policy problem.

Political journalists are keen to dismiss the wackier conspiracy theories like Obama birtherism or QAnon tomfoolery–and well they should. But there is no reason to treat belief in widespread voter impersonation fraud any differently. It is arguably significantly likelier, comparatively speaking, that Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are engaged in a wink-and-nod game of headfakes while they pursue a ring of high-profile pedophiles (per QAnon doctrine) than that there is a complex conspiracy of tens of thousands to commit voter impersonation fraud at scale. The notion is so far beyond ridiculous that it makes people who question the moon landing seem serious by contrast.

It would be just as reasonable if conservatives started setting up unconstitutional searches and seizures of students and people of color to guarantee against alien body snatcher invasions, as it is to implement restrictive hurdles against voting rights to guarantee against voter fraud.

But the political press doesn’t treat it that way. Instead, fears of voter impersonation are bizarrely treated as a normal part of our politics, with dire consequences for the rights of voters and for democracy itself. That must change, and quickly.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.