Who’s In Charge Here: Voter fraud in Virginia?

#RVALiifeRICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Voter fraud is once again all over the news.

During the past week, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein successfully filed for a vote recount in Wisconsin and is petitioning for additional audits in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Stein claims on her website that the vote machines in those states are “highly vulnerable to hacking and malicious programming.”

And then over the weekend, President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted out that he would have won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He followed up that stunner by claiming that the media ignored “serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire, and California.”

So: should you be worried about voter fraud? Are our elections a sham?

Before I answer those questions, I can tell you this: neither Trump nor Stein are worth listening to about this particular issue.

Trump, as usual, is either lying or doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There is no evidence of illegal voting in Virginia or other states, and certainly not “millions” of votes. On the other hand, Stein is right that voting machines in a number of states are more vulnerable to hacking than they should be. But there’s no evidence that anything like that happened in this particular election; we are not seeing the kinds of anomalies we might find that should result from a hacking effort. Instead, demographics do a good job of explaining why Trump won, and where he won.

So both Trump and Stein are essentially misinforming Americans about voter fraud. While I’ve written many times about this issue (most recently in October), it’s worth rehashing with all of these accusations swirling around.

So: should you be worried about voter fraud? Are our elections a sham?

There are three things in particular you need to know about voter fraud:

  1. Voter fraud does NOT happen.

According to the best evidence we have, widespread voter fraud is… not a thing. Most errors in voting are isolated and rare; typically result from mistakes in bureaucracy, not of malicious intent or conspiracy; and are confined to improper registration, not actual illegal voting.

Is it true that occasionally someone, somewhere, votes illegally? Sure. We have a massive democracy, and manage to get millions of people to the polls on the same day (over 135 million in 2016, according to the latest estimates). There will inevitably be errors, even the rare effort to rig the system. But in a country where the closest state margin was Michigan’s 10,000 votes, a few votes here or there will not change the outcome in any but the rarest of circumstances.

So why do politicians, and particularly Republicans (and their supporters in conservative media), continue to harp on fraud, and demand we do something about it? That brings us to the second point:

  1. Americans have a split personality when it comes to voting.

Americans love democracy, but don’t always support its full expression. On the one hand, most of us think the right to vote is important and should be protected. But we also view voting as a responsibility, one that should not be taken lightly. As a result, we’re open to appeals from both Republicans and Democrats, who approach the voting rights issue from different ideological positions.

In general, Republicans and conservatives want to protect the sanctity of the voting process. ANY illegitimate vote weakens democracy and undermines confidence in the results of elections. Republicans would rather prevent some legitimate voters from getting to the polls if it shores up the process and makes sure that no false votes get through.

On the other hand, Democrats and progressives want to protect the voting rights of individuals, especially those most vulnerable among the electorate. They would rather have looser rules in order to ensure more participation, even if (though they probably won’t admit it) it means that a few illegitimate votes may squeeze through.

Both positions make some intuitive sense. But if Republicans were really concerned about the problems of improper voter registration and possible illegal voting, they would look for simple solutions like modernizing registration and same-day registration, even a national voter database. Instead, Republicans have successfully pushed for restrictions like voter ID laws in recent years, and conservative Supreme Court justices even struck down provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 that had made it harder for state governments to restrict voting.

None of these conservative “solutions” really would do anything to protect electoral integrity, even if there was any evidence that widespread voter fraud was a problem. (And again, it’s not.) Why are they so committed to solutions that don’t solve the problem?

The short answer: politics.

  1. There’s a game behind the game.

Parties and candidates win elections by getting more votes than their opponents. (Duh.) But you can also win elections long before the first vote is cast – if you make sure the election rules are set up in your favor. This is the “game behind the game” – what I’ve been calling the #VoteWars, in which Republicans and Democrats fight to control the way the game is played. And Republicans are winning, by a large margin.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, every obstacle to voting, from advance registration to voter ID, makes it “harder and harder for Americans – particularly African-Americans, the elderly, students and people with disabilities – to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot.” It is the poor and vulnerable who are most likely to be prevented from going to polls by these obstacles. Guess which way these people are most likely to vote?

So in the end, Republicans want voting restrictions because they keep Democrats from voting. Indeed, some of them admit as much, even while many others keep up the drumbeat of “protecting the integrity of your vote.” It is a political strategy – one designed to keep Republicans in power even as demographics turn against them. This strategy may be smart, but it rests on removing the right to vote from the people who probably most need a voice in American politics.

So to answer the original question: should you be worried about voter fraud? Yes, but not because elections are being undermined by illegal voting. Instead, elections are being undermined by perfectly legal efforts to keep Americans from voting. That’s the real scam.

Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @rjmarr. Follow his blog here.

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