As this is being written it appears that Joe Biden has won the presidential election. Trump is claiming that Biden won through fraud, something that even Fox News has greeted with some skepticism. Trump even claimed, without evidence, that voter fraud occurred in the election he won in 2016. Some of his supporters are echoing his claims, taking to social media to present, without evidence, claims of voter fraud. A video by Project Veritas has been widely distributed and purports to show such fraud. As this is being written, the Attorney General of Texas is investigating the matter—if fraud did occur, the perpetrator(s) should be punished.
As would be expected, the unsupported claims about fraud have been repeatedly debunked. But Trump and his supporters persist in their claims. It is true that issues and problems arise in any election and that fraud does occur in some tiny fraction of a fraction of the votes. As such, arguments trying to prove that significant voter fraud exists tend to be fallacies or based on lies. One popular approach is the fallacy of anecdotal evidence—this involves emphasizing an example of real fraud and then taking the anecdote to counter the overwhelming statistical evidence that voter fraud is incredibly rare—but does occur. Somewhat ironically, the anecdotes often serve to better show that fraud is difficult and largely ineffective: the perpetrators are caught and any damage they did is addressed. For example, a North Carolina GOP operative was charged with multiple felonies for ballot tampering in a 2018 election. The results were overturned.
The rhetorical tactic of hyperbole is also used as are outright lies, such as claims made by Attorney General Barr. Willful misinterpretation is also a common tactic—for example, a New Jersey postal worker did dump 99 general election ballots in a dumpster over the course of a few days. While this might seem to be a case of intentional election tampering, the worker dumped more than 1,800 pieces of mail. As such, the more reasonable explanation is that he was dumping the mail for other reasons and ballots happened to be a fraction of this mail. There was a similar incident in which three trays of mail were found in a ditch. There were some mail-in ballots in the mix, but the situation was (as one would expect) nothing like the claims made by Trump about ballots being dumped in rivers.
While these mail issues are a problem, they are not specifically a voter fraud problem—they are a problem with mail being dumped or lost. Once again, this examples ironically show that the system is working reasonably well: the mail was found, investigated and the issue addressed. Trump and his supporters have generally eroded away all credibility in this matter—but this is not to say that their claims must be false. To infer that a claim about fraud is false because it was made by Trump or a supporter would be an ad hominem fallacy. But Trump has no credibility, so it would be foolish to believe a claim simply because it was made by him. What would be needed is credible evidence of significant, intentional efforts to engage in fraud or tamper with the election. So how can the dispute over fraud be settled?
Suppose that we were disputing the issue of which NBA player scored the most points in 2019. While people might have strong feelings about who is the best player, we would be able to easily settle this by going to a trusted source for the sports statistics and the issue would be resolved. While voter and election fraud are also objective features of reality, there is probably no source trusted by both fraud claimers and fraud deniers. For example, if I refer to NPR, CNN, or academic studies, I will be greeted with cries of “fake news” and “Marxist academics.” So, the matter cannot be addressed in this manner. What I will try to do is present a rational approach to addressing claims of fraud that does not require trusting news or academic sources.
Individual voter fraud is unlikely because it is a high-effort, low return tactic that is typically a felony. To use an analogy, it is like trying to get rich by robbing kid’s lemonade stands with a gun—there is little return, it takes work, and the consequences are severe.
Election tampering is a “better” strategy in that it has a higher return on the effort but is also high risk—these activities are typically felonies and they seem to be easy to detect.
There is also the fact that there are legal ways to shape the vote: voter suppression, voter expansion, gerrymandering and such. These provide far greater return on effort and are not illegal. This is why parties put their efforts into these strategies rather than engaging in low-yield and high-risk fraud. As such, fraud organized by parties is unlikely—but, of course, not impossible.
At this point, Trump supporters are likely to insist that they do have evidence of voter and election fraud—pointing to memes, websites, tweets, and videos. Since disputing these sources would be pointless, I will instead offer the following.
Voter fraud an election interference are crimes, typically felonies. If you have evidence of such activity, you should send it to law enforcement—if they find it credible, they will investigate. If fraud or tampering did occur, then there is a good chance that there will be arrests and trials. As such, if there is real evidence of widespread voter fraud or election interference, then there should be follow up police reports and court transcripts. To be fair, it can take a while for investigations to conclude—so one must wait a reasonable amount of time to allow for the legal evidence to surface. Such information can be acquired directly from the police and court reports—no need to rely on the “fake news.”
To use an analogy, if Trump claimed that Democrats murdered millions of people in 2016 or that they were engaged in widespread murder in 2020, then there should be evidence of these crimes. Like voter fraud, murder is a crime and there would be evidence for these murders. If there is no evidence, then it would be unreasonable to believe claims about Democrats committing murder. The same applies to the crime of voter fraud.
If you do believe that Biden won due to widespread fraud and have evidence for this, I look forward to seeing the police reports and court transcripts for these cases. Oddly, past claims of significant fraud and tampering made by Trump and his supporters lack such evidence—for example, Trump’s deranged claim about millions of people voting illegally in 2016 has obviously never been backed up with evidence. Trump has had control of the executive branch for four years and even his own voter fraud commission failed to turn up widespread fraud.
Assuming Biden won, for him to have won through fraud would have required a nationwide coordinated conspiracy involving large numbers of people and it would have to occur under the noses of election officials, media, citizens and law enforcement. Such a vast conspiracy would create considerable evidence that should be readily available. If the absurd claim is made that the Democrats are Machiavellian masters of intrigue who have duped the nation, then there seem to be two inferences. One is that if they are so competent, then perhaps they should be in charge. The second is that if they are so capable and hiding evidence so that none is available how does anyone know they committed this miraculous crime?
At this point a dedicated Trump supported might bring up the shadow government, a conspiracy theory that there is a secret government with the real power. The easy and obvious replies are as follows. First, how could this be? Trump holds the executive branch and thus controls the military and the police. He also effectively controls many courts. Republicans hold the Senate, most governorships, and most state legislatures. There does not seem to be much left for the deep state or shadow government to control. Second, if this deep state or shadow government is so powerful and so inimical to Trump, then one must wonder how it has allowed the Republicans to win so much. The more reasonable explanation is that Biden simply won by legitimately getting more votes.
As a final point when thinking about claims of voter or election fraud in 2020, consider this: it appears that the Democrats will lose some seats in the House and the Republicans will keep their lead in the Senate. This would be a very odd thing for the Democrats to do if they used fraud to win the presidential election. After all, there are not separate ballots for the president and the other races. As such, the outcome of the election tells against fraud. One could argue that the Democrats are being super clever—just cheating on the Presidential election but playing fair with all the other races so no one suspects they are cheating. This is obviously stupid—Trump was already accusing the Democrats of planning fraud and they knew that unless Trump won, they would be accused of fraud (and probably even if he did win). So, if they were going to cheat, there would be no reason not to cheat across the board and secure a majority in the senate and gain more seats in the house.
In closing, while there is no evidence of widespread voter or election fraud, I am willing to accept legitimate police and court documents as evidence towards this claim. I look forward to the trials of any wrongdoers.