Trump’s Ado About Nothing
by John Lawrence
National polls are looking a little grim for Republican nominee Donald Trump. Given his one-man political tsunami, with attacks on Gold Star parents, Speaker Paul Ryan, ex-POW John McCain – really, against just about anyone other than what’s-her-name – his deteriorating numbers are hardly surprising. Let’s just say that when Party leaders begin poring over the rule books to see how one might go about withdrawing a nomination, there’s not much “grand” in the Grand Old Party.
Which may be why Mr. Trump has decided to open a new line of attack: impugning the electoral process itself. Trump has still not finished condemning the unfairness of the primary procedure, even though it ended in his nomination. But now, perhaps anticipating a drubbing in November, he has decided to blame the manipulation of the election returns three months from now.
Now, there’s little question there has been partisan manipulation of the election process, as documented by three federal court decisions this past week. However, those rulings all focused on electoral hanky-panky designed to prevent Americans from casting votes, leaving little doubt that the voter ID laws enacted by Republican legislatures were ill-disguised efforts to obstruct minority voters from casting what will likely be overwhelmingly Democratic votes.
Trump, not surprisingly, chooses to look through the other end of the telescope and predictably sees a very distorted image: voter fraud. Is there a genuine issue that justifies not only the spate of voter ID laws but also the millions of dollars spent on examining allegation of vote manipulation? Or is this simply a trumped up charge designed to damage the credibility of both the elections and those who prevail?
“If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised,” Trump said this week. “The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times.” In fact, there have been multiple, exhaustive studies of voter fraud allegations, and no one has been able to point to a single case where the miniscule cases of fraudulent voting (generally accidental, not intentional) has impacted a single race.
Two years ago, Justin Levitt of Loyola (Los Angeles) Law School conducted a study of alleged voter fraud since 2000 in local and federal elections. Out of one billion votes cast during that 4-year period, he found: 31 cases. “Usually, only a tiny portion of the claimed illegality is substantiated,” Levitt concludes from his empirical research, “and most of the remainder is either nothing more than speculation or has been conclusively debunked.”
Another study by Lorraine Minnite of Columbia University found that most assertions of fraud (which Minnite agreed were “exceedingly rare”) fall into one of three categories: mischief and administrative or voter error, unsubstantiated claims, or false claims by the loser of a close race.” Although we love to hear the stories of Mayor Daley turning out the graveyard vote, Minnite found that in 95% of so-called ‘cemetery voting’ instances in the 2010 South Carolina mid-term vote, “human error accounts for nearly all” of the “fraud” alleged by the state’s law enforcement chief.
Similarly, a study of the 2012 general election by professors at the University of Wisconsin and Stanford examined allegations of repeated or fraudulent voting and vote buying, and concluded, “The notion that voter impersonation is a widespread behavior is totally contradicted by these data.”
Nor are these studies just being conducted by liberal professors committed to discrediting Republican allegations of fraud. When Iowa’s Republican secretary of state examined 117 allegations of fraudulent voting, there were 6 convictions. In 2011, Wisconsin investigated charges about the 2008 election and charged 20 people, most of them ineligible because they were felons.
When the press dove into the allegations, it similarly came up dry. A New York Times review of the George W. Bush Justice Department’s five year investigation found just 26 convictions, mostly attributable to people who filled out voter registration forms incorrectly or “misunderstood eligibility rules.” In other words, people who did not intend to deceive officials or steal elections. The Times reported that the Justice Department found “virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.” In Arizona, a student journalism project similarly concluded that “while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal.”
Those findings have not dissuaded 37 state legislatures – overwhelmingly Republican — from passing laws that create barriers to voting, mostly voter ID requirements. And what might be the actual impact of those dubious laws enacted to address non-existent problems? Professor Zoltan L. Hajnal of the University of California, San Diego concluded that “strict voter ID laws double or triple the gap in turnout between whites and nonwhites.” Admittedly, that conclusion should not be a major surprise, since discouraging minority turnout is precisely what the laws were designed to do (as the federal courts agreed this week). About one in seven voters lacks a government issued ID, and disproportionately, those without IDs are poor, old, disabled, rural and non-white minorities.
So the problem with suffrage in America is not fraud, which impacts election outcomes, but rather barriers created by politicians to keep voters they dislike from voting. When Greg Abbott was Texas’ Attorney General in 2005, he was determined to investigate what he called “an epidemic” of voter fraud. Two years later, Abbott’s investigation found no evidence of voter impersonation. There were 26 prosecutions – every one of them a black or Hispanic person – against people who helped the elderly with mail-in ballots but failed to sign their names and addresses on the envelopes, as required by state law. Abbott rode such unsubstantiated hysteria into his current job: Governor of Texas. By the way, Abbott paid for this witch-hunt with $1.4 million in federal funds, doubtless while lecturing about the need to cut down on wasteful federal spending.
Now, there are real problems with voting in America that Congress and the next President should focus on, but they don’t have to do with fraud; they have to do with access. Congress should make it simple to vote – Oregon uses all mail-in ballots and has reported no problems with fraud – instead of forcing voters to line up for 6 or 7 hours in the freezing cold in November. Expand early voting (politicians hate it because it messes up ad buys); allow same day registration, or, like California, make registration automatic when you get a drivers’ license.
But we also have to recognize that the biggest barrier to voting is likely indifference, often disguised in the language of being “too busy” to vote. In a close Texas race in 2014, nearly 26% of those who did not vote cited as a reason that they were “too busy,” as compared to just 6% who lacked a proper ID. Indeed, when I asked my undergraduate students this spring about their intention to vote, several told me it was just too difficult and they were “busy.” Voters are influenced in decisions about going to the polls, of course, by their confidence in the system, in its fairness and the likelihood that their vote will make a difference. There isn’t much question about the latter; a vote per precinct is more than enough to impact many legislative races around the country.
This is where disparaging the political system is part of the GOP strategy. Denigrating those in office, and the government itself, discourages participation, and likely reduces voting by those least likely to vote in the first place: young voters and minorities who would overwhelmingly vote Democratic. When over 60% of the electorate just decides to stay home – and we can’t blame that on voter ID laws – we have an electoral crisis in this country; requiring voter IDs is not likely to fix it.