There’s an old joke almost everybody in politics has heard involving former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, the “big boss” of Chicago at a time when that meant something.
Daley ruled the city for many years with an iron hand. As he was dying, the story goes, he used his final breath to extract a promise from his closest associates that after he died, they’d have him buried on the city’s South Side “so he could stay active in politics.”
People have talked about fraud in American politics for years. Movies have been made about it – some serious, some not. Books have been written about it. It’s axiomatic among the political class that there are places where elections are routinely stolen by political machines that owe their allegiance to a party, a boss, or a cause and that “the dead” do sometimes make political contributions and vote.
In the abstract, it can be funny; when it happens, it’s no joke. Maryland Republican Ellen Sauerbrey narrowly lost the 1994 gubernatorial race because of it, as did Louisiana GOP St. Rep. Woody Jenkins, who said his less than 6,000 vote loss in a 1996 race for U.S. Senate was the result of last-minute fraudulent votes coming out of New Orleans.
In both cases, the courts disagreed, but that didn’t mean the fraud didn’t happen. Sauerbrey and Jenkins couldn’t prove it to the satisfaction of those in a position to make a difference in the result. Even many Democrats now acknowledge that some votes cast for JFK in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential contest – at its time the closest in U.S. history – were fraudulent even if (or especially because) they wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
Former President Donald J. Trump will likely go to his grave believing the 2020 election was stolen from him. He can’t prove it – and is voluble in his criticism of GOP leaders and elected officials who don’t want to spend time trying. Before casting too much shade in their direction, however, consider the issue here may be a practical one rather than a matter of principle.
Fraud is hard to prove. The people who are good at it know how to do it so that most times it is at best undetectable. At the very least, they do a lot to ensure what they do is unprovable to a legal certainty, thereby gaining an edge with state and federal judges who typically insert themselves into electoral outcomes with the greatest reluctance. But just because it can’t be proven doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Getting back to Trump, some of the more outrageous charges made on his behalf – like the idea that machine vote counts were manipulated on servers located outside the United States before they were reported – lack credibility on their face and take attention away from the systemic changes in the voting process made before the election that activists working against the former president could have exploited to alter vote totals.
An examination of those issues, says one researcher, shows patterns worth looking into further.
Statistician John R. Lott Jr. examined the results from six swing states and found voter turnout on behalf of the GOP improved between the 2016 and 2020 elections while support for the Democrats dropped “except in places where voter fraud was claimed,” The Washington Times reported Monday.
His review of data from the 2020 election showed Joe Biden getting what Lott called hundreds of thousands of “excess” votes in Democratic-controlled areas in the 2020 election, the paper reported.
“More heavily Democratic counties actually had a slightly lower turnout in 2020, except for counties where vote fraud was alleged. In those counties, you had a huge increase in turnout,” Lott told The Washington Times in an interview.
In some of those swing states, you had counties where vote fraud was alleged. In some of those swing states, you had counties where vote fraud wasn’t alleged. And yet you only had huge increases in turnout where vote fraud was alleged,” he said.
Crucially, Lott’s examination of the data revealed that while in-person voting numbers were consistent with overall trends in both parties, the “absentee or mailed balloting tilted toward Democrats in the Democratic precincts” for what the paper described as “no clear reason.”
“Time after time, the news media keeps on saying there’s no evidence of vote fraud there. I think it’s at least a little bit harder for them to go and claim that” Lott told reporter Stephen Dinan.
The results of Lott’s number-crunching are not conclusive. It is not evidence that will stand up alone in a court of law as proof that fraud occurred. They are, however, provocative – especially when considered in conjunction with the proliferation of drop boxes – which destroy any idea of an intact chain of custody of ballots – and the lack of an audit trail to determine what happened to non-request vote by mail ballots that were sent to voters who no longer lived at the addresses attached to their registration. No one can discount the possibility that highly motivated partisans might, for reasons of their own, run the risk of breaking the law to help drive Trump from office.
It could be done. That doesn’t mean it was. It is nonetheless an argument for tightening up the system to make sure the obvious flaws are addressed. No more unattended drop boxes. No more opportunities for people to drop off more than one ballot at a time. No more “no request” vote by mail ballots. The opportunities to make mischief with any or all of these are too high.
You would think these would be reasonable positions to take, motivated by a bipartisan desire for free, fair, and clean elections. Instead, they’re controversial, which suggests one side sees them as an electoral advantage while the other sees them as a way to cheat. That alone ought to be enough to bring them under greater scrutiny – but it won’t. Because of all the insurrection, Jan. 6, overthrowing an election nonsense the politicians of one party and their allies in the mainstream media are peddling. There are even some who have gone so far as to suggest any Member of Congress who voted against the counting of the ballots from any state be kicked off the federal ballot in November 2022 for violating the 14th Amendment.
So far, none of those efforts have led to anything more than excitable news coverage. But they have been a useful distraction to help drown out any reasonable calls for election process reform. Are American elections honest? Can we trust the results? The winners will almost invariably say “Yes,” at least in public. The losers, not so much – especially if they think they can get mileage out of complaining. Either way, that doesn’t mean in any way that the process cannot be improved and that we must be serious about the safeguards we put in place to discourage fraud. It’s time for a real debate about where we go – which means moving on from where we’ve already been. Stop fighting the last battle and get ready for the next one.