After a contentious recount, Bill Nelson has conceded the senate race to Rick Scott. Before the recount, both President Trump and Rick Scott said, without evidence, that the election had been tainted with widespread fraud. Trump even advanced the bizarre claim of voters changing clothes in their cars to vote again. As this is being written, the election has come to an end without any evidence of voter fraud or other electoral misdeeds. To be fair, there were problems in some counties—especially Broward. There were also problems with ballot design, but this did not seem to favor any particular candidate. Good ballot design is difficult, but it should be something that enjoys bipartisan support—since such design flaws would generally seem to provide no advantage to either side. Rather importantly, as has long been the case, felons were not permitted to vote—thus disenfranchising about 1.5 million citizens. This race-driven policy has been, in part, undone in this past election, which might change elections to come. But, let us return to the allegations of fraud.
Given that there has been no evidence of fraud or other illegalities, it might be wondered why Trump and Scott pushed their lies so hard on the national stage. One obvious reason is that the untrue claim of voter fraud has been a stock talking point for the Republicans for a long time. As such, it makes sense that Trump and Scott would parrot this party line—it has become something Republicans just seem to say. Interestingly, both Trump and Scott made these accusations in the face of their own victories, so one could say that Trump and Scott said they won fraudulent elections. In the case of Trump, he was enraged that he had been thrashed in the popular vote while winning by the electoral college (something he had railed against in the past).
It should be noted that the Democrats have a narrative of voter suppression which they present at least as often as Republicans cry out about voter fraud. But, there is a difference: voter fraud is infinitesimal while voter suppression has a meaningful impact on elections. In the case of Scott, he was clearly worried that he might lose, which leads to a second likely reason.
Second, Scott had an excellent practical reason to raise the specter of fraud: there was a chance that he might lose the election. Presumably he hoped that this would benefit him in the realm of public opinion or otherwise yield some advantage in achieving victory—perhaps by ending the vote counting early. To be fair to Scott, Democrats bring up voter suppression when they are losing (or have lost). But, as noted before, Scott and Trump have never been able to provide evidence of voter fraud, but there is clear evidence of voter suppression. The most obvious examples in Florida are the racist law excluding felons from voting and Scott’s Kafkaesque process for restoring voting rights. Scott has openly claimed the process is arbitrary and the available information shows that Scott favored restoring voting rights to whites and Republicans. Florida has about 1.5 million felons who could vote, so Scott’s control over the restoration voting rights gave him considerable power over elections. As such, while fraud did not cost him the election, his control over felon’s voting rights helped him achieve victory.
Third, the deceitful narrative of fraud is used to “justify” various efforts aimed at voter suppression. By bringing up claims of voter fraud before a national audience, Trump and Scott can help fuel voter suppression across the country. The fact that they provide no evidence seems to be irrelevant, those that fear voter fraud are clearly motivated by emotion rather than evidence. When the Republicans try to suppress votes in the future, they can refer to the fraud that never was in Florida to help get laws passed and “justify” them to the public. This leads to the point of why crying fraud matters.
For those who believe that citizens should be able to freely exercise their just right to vote, using the specter of voter fraud to justify the suppression of voters would clearly be wrong. After all, it is a lie used to justify robbing citizens of a fundamental democratic right. In fact, the right to vote is the defining right of a democracy. There is also the obvious moral problem with lying.
Another problem is that such false claims can undermine the faith of citizens in the election system and hence democracy itself. This can drive down participation—people who think that their vote will not be counted or will be washed away in a tide of fraud might be less inclined to vote. The United States already has low voter participation, in part because the process is often made difficult by various laws and, of course, by the inefficiency and disorder of many elections. Given the available technology, the fact that elections are run so badly would suggest that this is a feature and not a bug. The attack on voting can also be used to pave the way towards non-democratic systems as people lose faith in the democratic process.
It might be objected that cries of voter suppression are also damaging. On the one hand, it could be argued that such accusations could lower turnout and undermine faith in the system. On the other hand, voter suppression occurs and the efforts to counter voter suppression aim at encouraging people to vote and making it easier for legitimate voters to vote. As such, when people bring up voter suppression honestly and oppose it, they are helping democracy and not harming it.
It can also be objected that voter suppression is a liberal myth. However, the evidence for voter suppression is quite strong. The American Bar Association offers a run through of various voter ID laws, noting their impact. In terms of hard data on the impact of laws, researchers at Tufts and Harvard are working on a system to sort this matter out. Georgia, where the person in charge of the electoral process just won the governor’s race, is a paradigm example of voter suppression. And, I have often noted, the laws against felons voting are intended to suppress African-American voters and do so quite effectively. My home state of Maine allows felons who are still in prison to vote. While I like to think of my home state as enlightened, it is also worth noting that Maine did not have a minority population to suppress.
There are also the facts that the laws that are supposed to be aimed at voter fraud are aimed at something that rarely happens and that they do not really address the fraud that does occur. As such, one has to infer that either the Republicans are stupidly and badly trying to stop a problem that is not really a problem with methods that do not work or they are trying to suppress Democratic voters. The best explanation seems clear.
Naturally, I am open to evidence and arguments against my views. If there is strong objective evidence of significant voter fraud and strong objective evidence that the methods used to address it are effective, then I will change my position. Also, if there is strong objective evidence that voter suppression is a myth and that there are no unreasonable barriers to voting, then I will change my position on voter suppression.