The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Election 2020

The Paranoid Style of American Politics—Presidential Election Edition

Trying to counter viral election fraud claims is like playing whack-a-mole. [With Updates]


It is nearly a month since election day and yet discredited and debunked claims of election fraud or "irregularities" continue to go viral on social media platforms. Even some otherwise reputable commentators seem to get sucked in. What is particularly frustrating is that so many of these claims are easy to check, and yet so few bother to make the effort.

So, for example, various sites breathlessly report about thousands of absentee ballots in Pennsylvania and Michigan that were returned on the same day they were requested. How could this be?!? In both states, voters were allowed (and often encouraged) to request and return absentee ballots in person at local election offices. Indeed, in both states early in-person voting was conducted just this way. The voter goes to their local election office, requests an absentee ballot, receives it and fills it out on the spot, and then returns it, all in one visit (as both the PA and MI Secretary of State sites make clear). These were technically "absentee" ballots—and recorded as such—though used for early in-person voting.

Powerline posted on an allegedly anomalous voter turnout spike in Wisconsin that vanishes upon examination: The spike was caused by comparing turnout as a percentage of eligible voters for 2016 with turnout as a percentage of registered voters in 2020. The apples-to-apples comparison shows turnout increased slightly—as one would expect given the stakes of the election and how much easier early and absentee voting was this year—and the alleged spike disappears.

These are hardly the only easy-to-check claims that got spread before folks bothered to check the facts. Through a link on Instapundit, I found this American Thinker piece that is emblematic of the claims that purport to show "election theft"—and illustrative of how weak these claims are.

The article starts off with the "stunning fact" that Pennsylvania sent out 1.8 absentee or mail-in ballots, logged the return of 1.4 million mail-in ballots, but counted 2.5 million mail-in ballots. This claim was made by Rudy Giuliani at the Pennsylvania "hearing" on election irregularities. And it turns out this "stunning fact" is not true. As the American Thinker piece concedes in an update, "contemporaneous data completely contradicts Giuliani's statement." Whoever fed Rudy this claim confused primary and general election data. 1.8 million mail-in ballots were sent out in the primaries, but 3 million were sent out for the general election.

Continuing through the piece things don't much improve. There are various versions of purportedly anomalous "vote spike" claims (which ignore how vote tallies are reported in batches that, depending on the location, often swing heavily for one candidate or the other), and a credulous cite to the Ramsland affidavit, which purports to show vote fraud in Michigan by accidentally confusing Michigan and Minnesota county level data. (Practice tip: MI and MN signify different states.) And so on.

That batches of absentee ballots from deep blue precincts would swing heavily to Joe Biden should not surprise anyone. For weeks leading up to the election Democrats and media commentators urged people to vote early, while Trump surrogates dismissed the reliability of mail-in voting. Thus it was entirely predictable that mail-in vote totals in deep blue precincts were significantly bluer than election day tallies. [And, as Dan McLaughlin details here, claims that Biden only improved on Clinton's vote totals in four swing-state cities are simply false. Some other election irregularities are actually an artifact of "bad data cleaning," and the failure to note that precincts may move, merge, or shift between elections.]

Conservative commentator AG_Conservative has a useful round up and debunking of other viral election fraud claims (with lots of links) on his Patreon page. Or, if you prefer an MSM outlet, USA Today has its own index of election fraud fact checks. And then there are the silly statistical claims, such as the contention that "Benford's law" somehow shows Biden's vote totals were too improbable to be believed. [For more, see this excellent interview with Christopher Krebs, Trump's Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the Department of Homeland Security.]

Conspiratorial claims about election theft are hardly new to 2020. We saw outrageous claims about the 2016 Presidential election and 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia. Partisans do not like to believe that their candidate lost and often grasp at straws to show that their loss was "illegitimate."

As an Ohio resident, I still remember all the ridiculous claims made about Ohio in 2004, many of which were based upon ridiculous claims of statistical anomalies or concerns that vote totals didn't correlate closely enough to the exit polls. Substitute "Diebold" for "Dominion voting Systems" and you'll get the idea of the sorts of claims that were made. In the end, a few dozen members of the House and one Senator voted against certifying the election results in January 2005.

The claims Ohio was stolen spread more slowly, in part, due to the lack of viral social media channels. More importantly, political leaders and commentators showed more principle and character. John Kerry quickly conceded the election, and party leaders (with the exception of Rep. John Conyers) fell into line, throwing cold water on claims of a Buckeye State conspiracy.

The contrast to 2020 is striking. Kerry put country over party and personal interest. Trump has not. Instead, the President has refused to concede and party officials (encouraged and magnified by online grifters and media personalities) have stoked and spread bogus election fraud claims and pretended as if there is a way to overturn the election results in court.

We've learned not to expect any better from Trump. It is disappointing we cannot expect better from others who claim to act on principle and to care about truth.

[Note: Material in brackets was added after I initially published this post.]