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“In my first election in 1982, Democrats rigged about 25 percent of the voting machines to vote for everyone on the ballot but me. That’s 11 of 45 machines. The whole state was Democrat. Nothing was done to fix it.”
–Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), in a meeting between congressional Republicans and Vice President Pence, article published Jan. 27, 2017

While expressing support for the Trump administration’s plans to investigate potential voter fraud in the 2016 election, an Alabama congressman offered a stunning claim: Democrats rigged 11 of 45 voting machine in his first election to the state legislature in 1982.

That’s a significant charge, especially since it’s pretty tough to rig an election. So we set out to find out whether facts supported Brooks’s claim.

The Facts

Brooks’s comment, made during congressional Republicans’ meeting with Vice President Pence, became public via a leaked audio recording of the private meeting. His office corroborated the statement but did not offer much evidence to support it.

His office provided newspaper clippings showing there were complaints about malfunctioning voting machines in Brooks’s legislative district in Huntsville, Ala. During the afternoon on Election Day, Brooks announced that he planned on challenging election results and charged that 11 voting machines “at one time or another during the day would not register Mo Brooks’ votes.”

Brooks changed his mind after he won the election.

“I’m not going to contest it,” Brooks said at his victory party on election night. “But I hope there’ll be an investigation.”

A month later, the county requested the FBI to investigate Election Day irregularities in Brooks’s district. But there is no evidence the FBI conducted an investigation or, if it did, whether it found that anyone (Democrat or otherwise) had tampered with the machines. Brooks’s office did not respond to our repeated requests for more evidence.

State investigative agencies and the U.S. attorney’s office had no record of this investigation or its findings. News clippings from 1982 and 1983 reviewed by the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library and the Alabama Department of Archives and History had no reference to any investigative findings, either.

In fact, Alabama was one of three states the Justice Department placed under its watch in 1982 for potential voting rights violations or discrimination against black voters. There were nearly 200 federal observers at Alabama polling places on Election Day.

Henry Frohsin, an assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama at the time, could not recall any investigation or indictment related to Brooks’s 1982 election.

“Had there been any bona fides to the allegation, we would have investigated and prosecuted it, if it had merit. But based on the fact that I don’t recall that, I would have to conclude that there was no validity to the complaint,” said Frohsin, who was interviewed for a 1982 Huntsville Times article about the irregularities.

Voting machines at the time had one lever for a straight-ticket vote and levers for individual races. The individual levers would sometimes malfunction, Frohsin said. News clippings show that some of the problematic machines were fixed by the afternoon on Election Day.

“The Voting Rights Act had singled out states in the South, and we were cognizant of that. We were not going to have any hanky-panky going on in the polling areas,” Frohsin said.

After our inquiry, Brooks told AL.com that the Alabama Bureau of Investigation confirmed that voting machines were not counting votes for him but could not find who was at fault. The agency could not provide The Fact Checker any record of this investigation.

[Update: On Feb. 7, 2017, Brooks criticized our fact-check on the House floor and claimed, “I proudly wear the Washington Post Four Pinocchios like a red badge of courage.” On Election Day 1982, Brooks talked with witnesses and examined documents, and found the 11 machines registered votes for all candidates on the ballot except for himself, he said.

Brooks did not offer proof that Democrats rigged the machines, but said he the odds that 11 machines would not record votes just for his name, as the only Republican candidate, “are one chance out of 26 to the 11th power, or one chance out of 3.6 quadrillion chances. Conversely, the probability that these 11 voting machines were rigged is 3.6 quadrillion to one. The evidence is overwhelming.”]

The Pinocchio Test

Brooks claimed Democrats rigged a quarter of the voting machines in his 1982 election, but there is no evidence to support such a claim. Some voters reported problems with voting machines that day, but there’s no record that an investigation turned up rigged machines or any Democrats responsible for it.

Memories may fade and change over time, and perhaps Brooks made the claim in the confidence of a private meeting. But it’s irresponsible to make a claim about a politically charged topic like this without the evidence to back it up. We don’t know how often Brooks has been telling this apparently tall tale, but it’s time to retire it.

Four Pinocchios

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