The New York Times editorial board opines today on “The Success of the Voter Fraud Myth” and offers a credible explanation. First, some facts about voter fraud, from the editorial:
Last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that nearly half of registered American voters believe that voter fraud occurs “somewhat” or “very” often. That astonishing number includes two-thirds of people who say they’re voting for Donald Trump and a little more than one-quarter of Hillary Clinton supporters. Another 26 percent of American voters said that fraud “rarely” occurs, but even that characterization is off the mark. Just 1 percent of respondents gave the answer that comes closest to reflecting reality: “Never.”
As study after study has shown, there is virtually no voter fraud anywhere in the country. The most comprehensive investigation to date found that out of one billion votes cast in all American elections between 2000 and 2014, there were 31 possible cases of impersonation fraud. Other violations — like absentee ballot fraud, multiple voting and registration fraud — are also exceedingly rare. So why do so many people continue to believe this falsehood?
More to the point, why is the GOP so successful in selling this snake oil? As the editorial puts it, “How does a lie come to be widely taken as the truth?…The answer is disturbingly simple: Repeat it over and over again. When faced with facts that contradict the lie, repeat it louder.”
The editorial correctly attributes this “mass deception” to “Republican lawmakers.” Further,
Behind closed doors, some Republicans freely admit that stoking false fears of electoral fraud is part of their political strategy. In a recently disclosed email from 2011, a Republican lobbyist in Wisconsin wrote to colleagues about a very close election for a seat on the State Supreme Court. “Do we need to start messaging ‘widespread reports of election fraud’ so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number?” he wrote. “I obviously think we should.”
Sometimes they acknowledge it publicly. In 2012, a former Florida Republican Party chairman, Jim Greer, told The Palm Beach Post that voter ID laws and cutbacks in early voting are “done for one reason and one reason only” — to suppress Democratic turnout. Consultants, Mr. Greer said, “never came in to see me and tell me we had a fraud issue. It’s all a marketing ploy.”
A few well-crafted googles will retrieve many more such examples. And yes, it does have the intended effect of targeting African American voters, who tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, in particular. The editorial cites a study which found that, in elections from 2006 through 2014 “voting by eligible minority citizens decreased significantly in states with voter ID laws and “that the racial turnout gap doubles or triples in states” with those laws.”
In addition to the effectiveness of repetition, and despite the discriminatory intent, voter i.d. laws are unfortunately a fairly easy sell. Polls have indicated that large majorities of survey respondents favor voter i.d. laws (80 percent in this Gallup poll reported August 22nd). On a common sense level, requiring some sort of identification just seems reasonable when put in simplistic terms, especially to “low-information” voters who may not be aware that many low-income people and people in high-density urban areas often don’t have a driver’s license, or an “official” i.d.
The tougher sell for Republican politicians is restrictions on early voting, which are also designed to target African American citizens. Republican office-holders have been able to get away with it in many states mostly because they have gerrymandered hefty majorities in state legislatures, despite the fact that polls indicate early voting is broadly-popular, even with Republican rank and file (74 percent in the Gallup poll noted above). Republican officials are reduced to phony “early voting is too expensive” arguments when confronted. They should be confronted on this topic more frequently and more intensely.
One reason repetition works so well in fostering myths about voter fraud is that the GOP echo chamber and message discipline are so efficient. You will often hear the exact same verbiage in sound bites and buzz-phrases from conservative commentators on radio and television and in print and digital media. There is also an unofficial blackout of honest discussions about voter suppression among higher-brow conservative columnists, who don’t want to sully themselves with cheesey arguments, lying about voter fraud and favoring voter i.d. and restrictions on early voting.
Democrats are going to need a landslide election or two to cut into the GOP’s domination of state legislatures. But Dems should also focus on developing a more efficient echo chamber, so they can also benefit from repetition in challenging the myth of voter fraud. Message discipline doesn’t come as easy to the Democratic Party, with its more diverse constituent groups. But there is surely room for improvement in the way Dems “market” reforms and hone the messages needed to make the sale.