by James A. Bacon
Donald Trump has dominated the news the past few days with charges that the election is “rigged” due to media bias and electoral fraud. His charges, which have been long on bluster and short on specifics, have inspired numerous rebuttals in the news media. The vast majority of commentary suggests that voter fraud is negligible — and certainly does not occur on a scale to affect election outcomes.
While media retorts tend to be more fact-based than Trump’s (whose motto could well be, “Proof? We don’t need no stinking proof!”), that doesn’t mean they tell the whole story. The rebuttal articles I have surveyed create an aura of verisimilitude by citing academic studies and quoting experts about the electoral process, but they ignore evidence that contradicts their views.
For instance, an essay by Philip Bump in the Washington Post this morning headlined, “Trump’s Claims about voter fraud are patently ridiculously,” omits mention of the recent report by the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), “Alien Invasion in Virginia,” which uncovered evidence, naming names, of 1,046 non-citizens who were illegally registered to vote and had cast at least 200 ballots before being removed from voter rolls. (PILF had similar findings in Pennsylvania.)
The primary evidence that Bump cited was a study by Justin Levitt with the Loyola Law School who traced years’ worth of votes and found “only a few sporadic instances of possible — but not certain fraud. Specifically: 31 incidents out of 1 billion cast votes.” Wrote Bump: “There’s simply no credible evidence that in-person voter fraud happens with any regularity, much less at a scale that could affect a national race.” (My italics.)
Note the qualifier. No credible evidence of in-person voter fraud. Levitt focused on instances in which people showed up at the polls and voted using a false identity — a particular species of fraud targeted by Republican-initiated Voter ID laws. Levitt’s research found that that particular type of fraud was nearly non-existent. But it did not rule out other categories of voter fraud. As Levitt noted in a 2014 Washington Post piece:
These allegations do not include other forms of fraud … including absentee ballot fraud, vote buying, vote coercion, fraud in the tallying process, voter registration fraud, double voting, voting by noncitizens, voting by persons disenfranchised by conviction, or fraud in the petitioning process.
The commentators citing Levitt’s study to discredit Trump’s charges never mention that expansive caveat.
The Trump busters also cite the paucity of prosecutions as evidence that voter fraud is negligible. If fraud were widespread, they say, surely there would be evidence of it in the record of prosecutions and convictions. But that argument ignores the possibility that prosecutors may have no interest in tracking down voter fraud. As the PILF report demonstrated, registration among non-citizens in Virginia is endemic and hundreds of ballots were cast illegally, and that’s just based upon a sample of eight of Virginia’s 125 localities. These are not isolated instances — they are systemic, based upon the way the National Voter Registration Act is administered and enforced (or not enforced) across the state and probably the nation. Remarkably, PILF found no evidence that a single illegally registered voter uncovered in its Virginia investigation had been prosecuted.
PILF’s Noel J. Johnson said in testimony submitted last week to the House Privileges and Elections Committee:
Alexandria provided a list of 70 non-citizens who had been removed from their voter rolls in recent years. Each one of these registrants likely committed a felony when they registered to vote. Yet we received no records showing that any of these individuals had been referred to law enforcement for investigation or prosecution. …
Why have Virginia election officials not pursued criminal prosecutions of aliens registering and voting? …
Why has not a single instance of non-citizen registration and voting been prosecuted in Virginia that we could find?
The committee hearing turned into a bitter partisan fight as Republican lawmakers called for removal of Edgardo Cortes, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, and Democrats accused Republicans of following Trump’s lead of casting doubt on the legitimacy of the upcoming election. (See the Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage here.)
Here’s what I have yet to see — a single mainstream media article about the PILF report. As a former member of mainstream media myself, I don’t believe in media conspiracies. But I can understand why the Trumpkins do. The media’s lack of interest in the allegations detailed by PILF is as astonishing as the allegations themselves. How can the media be so uninterested in charges that, at least on the face of it, seem well documented and go to the heart of our democratic process? Surely such accusations should be aired publicly and subjected to critical analysis. Ironically, the fact that the report is swept under the rug will only feed the conspiracy-mongering of Trump and his minions.
If Trump succeeds in undermining the legitimacy of the 2016 election, which he undoubtedly will lose, he will have had plenty of help from his antagonists in the media. Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds has popularized the phrase, “Think of [members of the press] as Democratic operatives with bylines and you won’t go far wrong.” At least half the population would agree.
Update: I just watched Chris Hayes on MSNBC citing Levitt’s figure of 31 incidents out of 1 billion votes as if it were representative of all forms of voting fraud. I wonder if Levitt takes issue with the way his study is being misconstrued in the press.
Update: I managed to contact Levitt, who is on leave from the Loyola Law School and now works for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Unfortunately, he says he cannot comment on any topic not directly related to his DOJ work. “In the course of the year,”he writes, “I’ve seen my work (including but not limited to the piece you mentioned) cited quite a bit — some accurately, some not, some criticism, and some praise — but I’ve had to let the work itself do all of the talking on my behalf. ”
Update: Peter Galuszka takes issue with my statement that not a single mainstream media outlet has mentioned the PILF report. He wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post’s “All Opinions Are Local” feature that minimized the significance of the report as the product of “two right-wing groups” that “hounded” registrars for data and uncovered some sloppiness in record keeping. “Even if all 1,046 cases the groups claim are valid,” he concluded, “they do not make their point, given that more than 2 million Virginians tend to vote in elections. That’s hardly massive voting fraud.”