The big conservative lie on 'voter fraud'
It's hard to know if Republicans are lying to the country or themselves with their incessant harping on the supposed epidemic of voter fraud. But they are clearly doing one or the other — because voter fraud is nowhere near a significant problem in this country, and to the extent that it's a problem at all, it's a miniscule one.
Continually hyping the supposed voter fraud crisis is thus either a collective act of self-delusion or a cynical and flagrantly anti-democratic ploy to justify making it much harder for certain Americans (who just so happen to incline toward the Democrats) to vote.
The circumstantial evidence strongly indicates that the latter is the case — that Republicans value winning and holding political power more than they do upholding democratic ideals that could well produce electoral losses for themselves. They would much rather enact stringent voter ID laws that disproportionately affect poor and minority Americans — people who tend to vote for Democrats — than ensure that all Americans are able to vote as easily and effectively as possible.
We shouldn't be surprised by this. Most Republicans are notoriously quite comfortable with the many ways the U.S. Constitution stacks the deck in favor of the GOP — by, for example, giving voters in heavily Republican Wyoming the same representation in the Senate as voters in heavily Democratic California, despite the latter state having 68 times as many people as the former; and by giving individual voters in Wyoming three times the influence in allocating presidential electoral votes as individual voters in California; and by gerrymandering House districts to such an extent that Democrats may have to beat Republicans in total votes cast by 3, 4, 5, 6, or even 7 percentage points in next month's midterm elections in order to win a majority of the seats.
But even with all of those structural advantages, Republicans still may not prevail. That’s because the Republican president (who lost the popular vote by a whopping 2.8 million votes) is incredibly unpopular, as is the Republican Congress, as is the Republican policy agenda, including the party's only major legislative accomplishment over the past two years, as well as its just-completed push to appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court. If the United States held a straight-up, majority-rules national referendum on the GOP's performance over the past two years, President Trump, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the rest of them would promptly be booted out of power.
Of course, that isn't how politics works in the United States, and Republicans are eager to explain why: Because the capital-F Founders said so. And they said so because they thought that people who happen to live in states with low populations should be able to exercise veto power over those who happen to live in states with high populations. That doesn't sound especially wise or reasonable to me. But it doesn't really matter, because the only way to change any of it (through a constitutional amendment) would require buy-in from at least some of the very low-population states that are granted outsized power under the current arrangement.
But let's leave that all aside. Let's grant it all, for the sake of argument. Let's assume that it makes sense to have the president and the legislature's lower and upper house (and, indirectly, the courts whose appointees are chosen and confirmed by the president and the upper house) elevated to office not by a majority (or plurality) of the voters but rather by a minority faction favored by the electoral system laid out by the Constitution.
If we assume all of that, we are still left with an amazing fact: Even with all of those redundant obstacles to the exercise of majority rule, the powers that be have nonetheless sought over and over again throughout American history to place additional obstacles in the way of people voting. They claimed that the property-less lacked an adequate stake in the political community, that blacks were less than fully human, that women were less than fully rational. Little by little, down through the decades and centuries, these claims became untenable. The excluded came to be included, with the franchise extended to the poor and blacks and women. Yet there was still no right to vote embedded in the Constitution, no national holiday to make it easier for working people to cast their ballots, no guarantee of easily accessible polling places, no automatic registration.
That's where "voter fraud" comes in.
If it were a significant problem — if there were verifiable evidence of widespread abuse of the franchise, any evidence at all of significant abuse of the system to systematically skew the outcome of elections — I'm quite sure nearly every American would support strenuous efforts to correct the problem and punish the perpetrators. But there is no evidence of any such systematic abuse.
Does that mean there is no voter fraud in the United States? Of course not. In a country of 320 million people, there will always be criminality. The question is how much criminality — and the answer is that there is very, very little voter fraud in the U.S. In addition to broad-based studies showing miniscule incident rates (between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent), even the most sensationalistic anecdotes turn out to be much ado about next to nothing.
Take the recent story out of California about how 1,500 people were wrongly registered to vote through the state’s motor-voter program. On first blush, this sounds like a big scandal that could have set up a major case of voter fraud in the state — until you pause for half a second and realize, first, that it was a mistake and so not at all an example of fraud (which requires intent); second, that there’s no evidence that anyone has actually voted inappropriately based on the mistake; and, third, that even if all 1,500 people did end up voting, this is an infinitesimally small number in the context of California, where over 13 million people voted in the 2016 presidential election.
In response, Republicans will likely say that even one case of voter fraud is too many: The franchise is civically sacred and must be protected at any cost!
But is that really true? Most of us recognize that tough-minded policing and prosecution can do a lot to lower the crime rate — but also that at a certain point the cost of pushing a low rate all the way down to zero is too high, not just in budgetary terms but in terms of civil liberties and the overall quality of life. So we choose to live, quite reasonably, with the lowest rate we can achieve without having to pay those costs — because most of us agree that having to live in a police state is simply too high of a price.
By continuing to treat voter fraud as a major problem and using it as an excuse to purge voter rolls and erect other obstacles to voting, Republicans demonstrate that they just don't care about (and may even be positively giddy about) the costs — because they will likely be borne by those unlikely to vote for Republicans anyway.
Whether Republicans are lying to the country or themselves about the imaginary voter fraud problem, the consequences of combating it are the same: the GOP gets to continue and expand its minority rule of the United States.