Political Animal

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

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.

Trying to Survive the Nightmare of Donald Trump

There are some things that shouldn’t need to be said. That’s because most of us learn at a very early age that it is not OK to assault someone who annoys us. We even have laws against that kind of thing. And yet on Thursday night, the President of the United States praised someone who had broken those laws, saying, “He’s my kind of guy.”

The crowd seemed to love it.

That kind of thing leaves me speechless, much like I was when Trump mocked the victim of sexual assault and the crowd ate it up. Are we really at the point where we have to stand up and denounce things that are so obviously wrong?

Of course, all of this is happening at the same time that Trump accuses his opponents of being a dangerous mob that is prone to violence. Perhaps I’m too wedded to common sense, but that is enough to boggle a sane mind. It all leaves me wondering what the hell has happened to this country!

The truth is that we’ve been putting up with this kind of nonsense for almost two years now and it’s enough to challenge anyone’s sanity—while the real culprit who is obviously mentally unstable continues to occupy the White House. I still want to pinch myself in an attempt to wake up from this nightmare. Unfortunately it’s all happening in real life.

Just when I’m at my wits end, along comes that “ambitious black politician” with the few words I need to hang in there.

Thanks, Andrew; that ought to keep me going for at least the next couple of weeks.

Will Democrats’ Big Fundraising Translate to Votes?

Nate Silver is struggling to understand what it portends that the Democrats have accumulated an unprecedented money advantage in terms of candidate fundraising. He’s worried that his election forecast may be off, and not necessarily by underestimating the Democrats’ chances in the midterms.

It’s obviously not a bad thing for Democrats to be well-funded but the question is whether that’s being factored too heavily into the forecasts. Republicans have a lot of outside groups contributing generously to candidates who don’t have a ton of money to spend themselves, so it’s not safe to assume that Republicans who don’t have a lot of cash on hand are necessarily going to be that badly outspent.

The fact that money is flooding Democrats’ coffers certainly indicates a high level of engagement on the left, but it’s not really showing up in other measurements. When you compare likely-voter versus registered-voter polls, there’s no indication that either party should expect a significant advantage in turnout.

Silver speculates that new online fundraising tools and better fundraising pitches could be making it a lot easier to raise money without it really saying a lot about the quality of candidates or their campaigns, and that could easily lead to the money metric being overvalued in his forecast model.

One thing Silver doesn’t really get into is how this money might be spent down the home stretch. He’s more focused on what the numbers mean right now. Does it mean that the Democrats are more motivated than the polls suggest? Does it mean that he’s tweaking the polls in the wrong direction? Perhaps he’s overrating the incumbency advantage in a cycle where loads of Republican incumbents have a financial disadvantage.

But another question he might ask is a little different. Rather than focusing on whether the polls are right or wrong at the moment or whether his model is making the right adjustments based on fundamentals, perhaps he should be open to the possibility that the surge has not yet fully developed. In this scenario, the Democrats will close very strong and outperform this week’s polls precisely because they have more money to spend in the homestretch. They don’t have to choose between advertisements and field work, for example, but can do plenty of both.

It’s well established that incumbents have a big innate advantage in elections, but we have to wonder how that typically manifests itself. Usually, it means that they have an easy time raising money, that they don’t have to spend it raising their name recognition, that it’s difficult and expensive for challengers to redefine them, that they already have an established and experienced political team, and that at least a plurality of their constituents have already cast a ballot for them at least once.

Most of those advantages seem to be missing or muted in this cycle, which could leave a lot of Republicans struggling with the downsides of incumbency without getting the normal bonuses. Congress is very unpopular and the country is restless and in turmoil, which means that this is likely a change election. Other things being equal, the electorate may be much more inclined than usual to “throw the bums out,” which could be costly for a Democrat or two, but will mainly work to the disadvantage of the GOP.

Silver is right to wonder what the financial numbers mean, because the Dems seem to be raising lots of money irrespective of how talented or attractive or viable their candidates might be, and that means that getting a lot of donations doesn’t really indicate that a particular candidate is doing an especially good job. But it does mean that they won’t have the same disadvantages that challengers normally face.

I don’t know if the Democrats will outperform Silver’s models, because that depends a lot on how he tweaks the top-line results. It’s more realistic, I think, to believe that the Democrats will outperform the polls themselves, or that they’ll use their money in the last weeks to create a turnout advantage that isn’t showing up yet in the polling screens.

It could turn out that the money indicates a lot of passion from the most politically engaged, but it won’t translate into added votes.

One thing is certain, and that’s that the Democrats wouldn’t trade places with the Republicans.

How Do You Debate a Liar?

On Thursday night, CNN hosted a town hall meeting with Beto O’Rourke, Democratic candidate for the senate in Texas. It was supposed to include his opponent, Ted Cruz, but the Republican refused to participate. In a sane world, that should have spoken volumes to the voters in Texas.

There was one exchange during the discussion that stood out to me. It is captured in the first couple of minutes of this video clip:

Dana Bash asked O’Rourke why he confronted Cruz about being a liar during a previous debate. The news coming out of that one was that O’Rourke had switched gears and gone negative, which indicates the kind of bias we often encounter in the media. Cruz has been on the attack since day one of this campaign, which seems to be in line with what reporters expect. But if O’Rourke calls him out, he is chastised for going negative.

O’Rourke’s response to Bash highlighted the dilemma Democrats face in dealing with an opposition that feels no constraints when it comes to honesty. He has built a campaign around bringing people together based on their common aspirations rather than their fears. But as he explains, when Cruz does nothing but lie about his positions, it confuses voters and so he had to make a decision about whether or not to spend the entire debate debunking the lies—and thereby giving his opponent the ability to control the agenda—or simply call him out for being a liar. O’Rourke decided to do the latter, knowing that it would be interpreted as going negative.

I was reminded of why Barack Obama lost the first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012. Obama reports being taken off guard that Romney lied shamelessly about his previous positions, and failed to call him out on it. That was a serious mistake that some feared might cost Obama the election.

Mitt Romney was never one to be constrained by the truth, as Steve Benen so meticulously chronicled with his ongoing series titled, “Mitt’s Mendacity.” Obama eventually found his footing on that and began to suggest that his opponent suffered from “Romnesia.”

That is a perfect example of how a little bit of creativity and humor can go a long way. It’s why, in the race between Cruz and O’Rourke, the ads developed by Richard Linklater are so effective. When your opponent is being ridiculous, it’s never a bad thing to point and laugh. Taking them seriously gives their absurdity an air of validity.

It is obvious that simply ignoring the lies is the worst possible response. O’Rourke’s attempt to paint Cruz as a liar was an improvement, but still left a lot of confusion in the air about his positions. But he was also right to be concerned that an effort to call out every lie individually would mean allowing his opponent to control the agenda. Ted Cruz is very aware of that when he spouts a whole litany of lies. It creates a narrative that would take hours to debunk and put O’Rourke on the defensive in the process.

Of course, none of this is unique to the senate race between Cruz and O’Rourke. With their Liar-in-Chief ensconced in the Oval Office, Republicans have taken this all to a whole new level. As someone who writes about politics on a daily basis, I am aware of the fact that I could devote every piece I publish to debunking the lies and still not scratch the surface of covering them all. That is the world we’re living in when one political party and their enablers in right wing media have completely abandoned any pretense of telling the truth. Democrats are going to have to come up with some creative ways of breaking through in this environment.