“We’ve been busing people in to deal with you fucking assholes for 50 years, and we’re not going to stop now,” the Wisconsin Democratic operative Scott Foval declares in Rigging the Election, a video released this week by the conservative undercover-media activist James O’Keefe. In the video, Foval drunkenly discusses how to pull off a voter impersonation fraud scheme by sending folks with fake IDs to vote in neighboring states. The indiscreet Foval has since lost his job.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump invited O’Keefe to attend the third major party presidential candidate debate in Las Vegas. During the debate, Trump refused to say whether or not he would concede if he lost the vote the November, insinuating that there is a conspiracy to rig the election against him.
“The O’Keefe videos will add some evidence to Trump’s claims about a rigged election,” says Joe Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “They will give him some red meat to throw around.” When asked how he thinks the public will respond to the O’Keefe videos, the Western Washington University political scientist Todd Donovan replied in an email, “My guess is that the viewers will respond to it through their partisan perspectives. It reinforces pre-existing Republican attitudes; Democrats will see the source and assume it’s a hack job of editing.”
In a prepublication study, “The Effect of Conspiratorial Thinking and Motivated Reasoning on Belief in Election Fraud,” Uscinski and his colleagues point out that significant proportions of both major parties believe that electoral fraud is common. “Republicans are especially prone to believing that people are casting ballots they should not, whereas Democrats are more concerned that they are not able to cast ballots,” they write. As evidence they cite a national poll taken in July 2012 in which 54 percent of Democrats believed that voter suppression was a major problem compared to 27 percent of Republicans who thought so. On the other hand, 57 percent of Republicans believed that casting illegal ballots was a major problem compared to 38 percent of Democrats who did.
“Electoral fraud is a form of conspiracy theory,” Uscinski tells me. “And like any other conspiracy theory it is hard to disprove. Evidence that the plot didn’t happen actually works in favor of the conspiracy theory: ‘Look how hard they’re working to cover it up.’”
How common is electoral fraud? As Uscinski notes, since the would-be perpetrators do not want their schemes to be detected, voter fraud is by definition hard to measure. Nevertheless, most scholars have concluded that voter fraud, especially voter impersonation fraud of the sort that Foval appeared to be discussing, is rare in American elections. Uscinski thinks scholars probably undercount instances of voter fraud because the undetected successful instances don’t get tallied. But he also thinks such frauds are vastly overestimated in the popular imagination. Keeping a national electoral fraud scheme hidden would be exceedingly hard to do, Uscinski points out: It would be a huge coordination problem involving lots of people in very uncertain circumstances with many opportunities for blunders.
Donovan agrees. In an email, he writes: “Even if we take at face value the ‘description’ on the edited video of how to commit fraud, the execution wouldn’t be possible. It would require thousands of voters per state (tens of thousands?) to affect these elections. Renting cars in dozens of tates to move voters to dozens of Republican controlled states, where they would have fake addresses to vote under, would require 20,000 people or 200,000 people or even more people with rental cars (or each in a car bought at an auction?) and just as many fake addresses. You would need to convince 200,000 people or more to commit a crime and assume not one would be caught.” The video should be treated with due skepticism considering that Foval could be a lying braggart seeking to impress a novice politico with deeds of nefarious derring-do or the video is perhaps edited to advance a misleading narrative. It is politics after all.
What can be done to ensure the fairness of our elections—and to increase Americans’ confidence that they are indeed fair? The Pew Center’s Election Performance Index rates each state on 17 different items related to how well they administer their elections, including registration rates, absentee ballot rejections, and accuracy of voting technology. In their 2015 paper in the journal Electoral Studies, Donovan and his colleagues find that voters in states that rate higher in electoral quality are considerably less likely to believe that voting fraud is common. “We find evidence that administrative performance is positively and significantly related to perceptions of elections being fair,” they conclude. “This implies that improvements in the governance of elections could also promote democratic legitimacy, as fair elections are a key feature of democratic processes.”
A recent working paper by the Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris, head of the Electoral Integrity Project, has suggested a number of ways to improve the fairness of American elections. Among other reforms, she argues that a national ID card would address both Republican concerns about the security of the ballot and Democratic worries about voter inclusiveness. Norris points out that India provides every one of its citizens with an ID card; surely, she says, a much richer and technologically developed United States could do the same thing. Such a national ID would make it harder to pull off voter impersonation fraud, and it would also ensure that the poor, the elderly, and members of minority groups are not excluded from the franchise by a lack of proper identification. When I note that Americans have long resisted the requirement for a national ID card, Norris acknowledges that this could be problem. So would Americans prefer to live in a “papers please” world in order to ensure that our elections are both secure and inclusive?
In any event, Norris raised an interesting point about Trump’s claims that the election is rigged: It could easily backfire. “Fueling cynicism about the fairness of the electoral process serves to depress voter participation,” she notes. As evidence Norris cites the results from the 2012 American National Election Study (ANES), which found that 77 percent of people who believe that votes are “very often” counted fairly reported that they voted. By contrast, just 64 percent of those think the process is rigged bothered to cast a ballot. If you think your vote won’t count, you’re more likely to stay home.
In this election, people who suspect their votes won’t count disproportionately favor Trump. According to a September Washington Post/ABC News poll, 46 percent of Americans believe that voter fraud occurs very or somewhat often; for Trump supporters, the number is 69 percent. What’s more, Trump needs to attract independent voters to win. But according to the ANES, independents are more likely than Democrats or Republicans to be deterred from voting by claims of electoral unfairness.
Thus, Norris concludes, Trump’s claims that the election is rigged will likely “encourage strong Republicans and potential independent supporters to stay home on November 8th.” By alleging electoral fraud, “All that Trump is doing is shooting himself in the foot.” It wouldn’t be the first time.