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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Hyperbole and Denial

The first week of the Trump presidency is behind us and for those who expected a moderated tone, I guess your expectations are not going to be met. Get ready for governance by Tweet. For reasons which are obscure to me, he is glomming on to the cause of election fraud. I guess he is basically insecure and that it still galls him that, although he won the election, he did not win the popular vote.

For whatever reason, this debate will be front and center for at least a while. I had not given this issue much thought for a while. The history of American elections is one marked by various high profile and perhaps isolated instances of fraud which may have altered the outcomes of selected elections. Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson describes the likely ballot fraud which perhaps stole the election of Governor Code Stevenson. Much has also been written about Mayor Daley and the 1960 presidential election of  John Kennedy. Earlier time periods were likely marked by more systematic and widespread vote manipulations.

I did read John Fund's "Stealing Elections" book (2004) and his book identifies a number of irregularities. I read it almost a decade ago and had not given it much additional thought until today. He describes the different emphasis given to vote fraud and vote suppression given by the Republican and Democratic constituencies and emphasizes the former in a number of specific instances. I have to admit I took his data at face value when I read the book.

I read an Oped piece in the NYT (the-voter-fraud-fantasy) today which essentially discounted any possibility of systemic voter fraud. It got me to thinking. How could the Times claim no evidence of systemic fraud when work such as Fund's are out there? I decided to do some more digging and came across a report from the Brennan Center at NYU authored by Justin Levitt (The Truth About Voter Fraud). Many of the examples identified by Fund were analyzed and found to be orders of magnitude lower than thought and due to a host of database and clerical errors.
Allegations of widespread voter fraud, however, often prove greatly exaggerated. It is easy to grab headlines with a lurid claim ("Tens of thousands may be voting illegally!"); the follow-up - when any exists - is not usually deemed newsworthy. Yet on closer examination, many of the claims of voter fraud amount to a great deal of smoke without much fire. The allegations simply do not pan out.
The Brennan Center report was very convincing. John Fund does not accept this dismissal and presents data contrary to the Brennan Center conclusions voter-fraud-real-and-dangerous - National Review 10/7/2016:
J. Christian Adams, who previously worked in the Justice Department’s Voting Rights Section and attended the 2009 Fernandez meeting, now heads the Public Interest Law Foundation. He has forced several counties in states such as Mississippi and Texas to clean up their voter rolls. But in many other states, his efforts have run into outright obstructionism. He was able to get voter-registration records from eight of Virginia’s 133 cities and counties, and found 1046 illegal aliens who were illegally registered to vote. In the decade between 2005 and 2015, a number of those aliens had voted some 300 times. Their presence on the voter rolls was only discovered if, in renewing their driver’s licenses, they corrected their past false claims of citizenship.
There is an element of denial in terms of whether the systems in place are porous and at least prone to voter fraud. John Fund wrote in the National Review in January 2014 a story which describes various successful attempts to cast fraudulent votes:

... New York City’s watchdog Department of Investigations has just provided the latest evidence of how easy it is to commit voter fraud that is almost undetectable. DOI undercover agents showed up at 63 polling places last fall and pretended to be voters who should have been turned away by election officials; the agents assumed the names of individuals who had died or moved out of town, or who were sitting in jail. In 61 instances, or 97 percent of the time, the testers were allowed to vote. Those who did vote cast only a write-in vote for a “John Test” so as to not affect the outcome of any contest. DOI published its findings two weeks ago in a searing 70-page report accusing the city’s Board of Elections of incompetence, waste, nepotism, and lax procedures.
Issues are not isolated to New York City and identified by others in addition to Fund. A Pew Trust study in 2012 (pewupgradingvoterregistration) identified nationwide systemic problems.
Our democratic process requires an effective system for maintaining accurate voter registration information. Voter registration lists are used to assign precincts, send sample ballots, provide polling place information, identify and verify voters at polling places, and determine how resources, such as paper ballots and voting machines, are deployed on Election Day. However, these systems are plagued with errors and inefficiencies that waste taxpayer dollars, undermine voter confidence, and fuel partisan disputes over the integrity of our elections. 
Similarly, a study published by Jesse Richman at Old Dominion University pointed to evidence of non-citizen voting. His work was highlighted in a Wired article (Trumps-favorite-voter-fraud-study-says-everyones-wrong):
"...Over the last three years, Richman has grown weary of what he describes as the partisan distortions of his research. “We’re perpetually fighting a two-front war,” he says. “One against people, mostly coming from the left, who want to claim on generally quite flimsy grounds that the study is completely invalid, and on the other hand people on the right who want to pretend this study is much more than it is or says much more than it does.”
What is my take on all of this? What characterizes the discussion is a general intellectual laziness. While Trump takes intellectual laziness to new extremes, he is not unique in terms of being intellectual lazy. The NYT is lazy. While they use more than 140 characters, the content of NYT contains scarcely more information than the Donald's tweets. His claims that voter fraud cost him the popular vote are pants on fire wrong. However, to fail to acknowledge flawed voter registration systems and the possibility of widespread and systemic issues which may affect election results undermines confidence in the electoral system and provides fuel to demagogues like Trump. 

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