During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly suggested that American elections might be so tainted by fraud that a victory could be stolen from him. That innuendo raised hackles among critics who worried that Trump was laying the groundwork to shake faith in the foundations of U.S. democracy.
Then two strange things happened: First, Trump beat even his own team’s expectations and won. Second, he’s now questioning the validity of election counts anyway. Over the last few days, Green Party candidate Jill Stein announced she was filing for a recount in Wisconsin, citing suggestions of irregularities in the vote. Hillary Clinton’s campaign then said it would participate as well. That didn’t sit well with Trump:
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California - so why isn't the media reporting on this? Serious bias - big problem!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 28, 2016
Trump’s statements are baseless and misleading. It is not just, as many (though not enough) news organizations reported, that Trump provided no evidence for this. There simply isn’t any evidence for it. It isn’t real. Activists who insist there is voter fraud say it’s impossible to prove a negative, which is of course true, but repeated scientific studies have failed to pinpoint anything resembling fraud on the scale that would affect national, or even state-wide, elections. If there were truly millions of fraudulent votes being cast, it would be both detectable and—given the cottage industry around preventing fraud—detected. (Also, if there really were millions of fraudulent votes, wouldn’t that tend to support the case for extensive review of results, rather than detract from it?)
Even if there were not rafts of evidence suggesting that the fraud threat is overblown, one might just look to the likely source of Trump’s claim of millions of illegal votes. The claim was made by Gregg Phillips, who cited his own analysis. He has, however, refused to provide any data to back it up, and since it’s a distant outlier from any other finding, it’s safe to discount it, at least until Phillips produces actual data. But Alex Jones, a conspiracy-theorist radio host, picked up the claim and broadcast it further. We know that Jones has Trump’s ear; the president-elect has appeared on Jones’s show, and told him, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.”
When asked to substantiate the claim Monday morning, Trump spokesman Jason Miller pointed to a study that was published in The Washington Post in 2014, which has been extensively debunked. The Monkey Cage, the political-science-focused blog that published the original post, has all but disowned it. The author of another report Miller cited tweeted that the report did not say what Miller claimed it did.
While Trump has amassed a track record as an unusually dishonest politician, it is once again tough to know whether Trump believes the lies he’s spreading or if he’s aware of how bogus they are. Neither option is reassuring; either the soon-to-be-president is willfully lying to the American people and anyone else reading his Twitter feed, or else he’s incapable of sifting fact from clear fiction.
Claims like this one are, as James Fallows writes, a particular challenge for the press, which is not set up to deal with such disregard for objective truth, and which is also hobbled by the well-intentioned and generally wise caution against simply stating outright that a claim like Trump’s is false, since it’s impossible to prove the negative.
Trump’s tweets map neatly onto the division that characterized his campaign and has emerged even more forcefully during the transition, between the club-wielding Vandals intent on sacking the entire government establishment—including Republicans—and the Republican establishment, which is intent on directing the Trump campaign to achieve conservative policy goals. Before the election, defenders of government worried that Trump’s rhetoric would undermine faith in elections altogether; this might be seen as the goal of the Alex Jones types, who argue that the entire apparatus is corrupt.
But the more immediate effect of rhetoric like this is probably on the partisan debate over voting laws. Despite the lack of any evidence of systemic voter fraud, Republicans around the country have been advocating for tougher voter laws for the last decade or so. The most commonly proposed provision requires voters to present a photo ID for voting, even though there’s practically no evidence of in-person voter fraud. There is, however, evidence that changes like this—as well as reductions in early voting, another common tack—do disproportionately affect young and minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic.
The last few months have not treated those laws well. A series of court decisions, most notably in North Carolina but also in Texas, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, have battered those laws, finding that they are racially discriminatory. In the North Carolina case, a federal appeals court pointed to a long record of evidence that the law was designed specifically to suppress minority turnout.
But the election offers a chance to breathe new life into the battered voter-fraud canard. This is on display in North Carolina, where Republican Governor Pat McCrory, trailing by around 8,000 votes in his reelection campaign, has complained that voter fraud was responsible for handing the race to his Democratic challenger, Roy Cooper. So far, state and county authorities have treated the questions raised by McCrory’s campaign and his allies with skepticism. Republican have alleged, for example, that ineligible felons voted in the election, yet many of the names they have presented are either people with the same name as felons or people who committed misdemeanors but did not forfeit their right to vote. This is a leitmotif in voter-fraud allegations—the smoking guns frequently turn out to be cases of mistaken identity or of similar names.
But the insistence that fraud is responsible for the result, even if ends up being disproven, seeds the idea in the public consciousness that there’s widespread fraud. The same is true of Trump’s suggestion. It doesn’t matter how many articles there are like this one that point out that Trump’s statement is balderdash. In the American system, the press is intended to act as one counterweight on powerful politicians, but it’s not the only one, and this is not a symmetrical fight. Simply by raising the question, the president-elect sows the seeds of doubt. They may yet ripen into an utter lack of faith in the system, or sprout into an attempt to pass stricter voting laws that disenfranchise minority voters in the name of stopping an illusory problem.