Voter fraud made news recently for two reasons: first, because Donald Trump suggested that the November presidential election might be rigged against him, and second, because federal courts struck down several states’ Republican-backed voter identification laws.
Trump’s rhetoric should come as no surprise. He has shown a penchant for conspiracy theories and has previously claimed that both the primaries and the nominating convention would be rigged against him. And although the Supreme Court has previously upheld voter identification laws, lower courts this week have overturned them on the grounds that voter fraud simply doesn’t exist at a large enough scale to warrant potentially disenfranchising members of minority communities who have may have less access to acceptable forms of identification.
The concerns over both Trump’s rhetoric and voter ID laws point to the same phenomenon: that voter fraud is incredibly rare, but belief in voter fraud is incredibly common. Recent analyses show that out of billions of votes cast only a tiny percentage were fraudulent. Other analyses suggest more bluntly that the number of people who impersonated others in order to vote fraudulently is roughly equivalent to the number of people abducted (and returned!) by extraterrestrials.
Despite this, belief in voter fraud is widespread. In a nationally representative survey fielded just prior and then just following the 2012 election, respondents were asked: “If your preferred candidate does not win the presidential election, how likely do you think election fraud will have been involved?” Sixty-two percent answered in the affirmative.
Respondents were then asked, “During this campaign season, both presidential campaigns have been accused of ‘dirty tricks.’ Whose campaign do you think has used dirty tricks to try to win?” Eighty-five percent of respondents who identified with or leaned toward a party believed that the opposing party engaged in dirty tricks.
In short, majorities of Americans are inclined toward the views expressed by Trump.
This raises the question: Why do people believe in voter fraud despite a lack of evidence for it? In a working paper, my colleagues and I argue that one reason is an overarching tendency to believe in all kinds of conspiracy theories. We asked respondents questions capturing how much they viewed events and circumstances as the product of conspiracy, such as whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Big events like wars, the current recession, and the outcomes of elections are controlled by small groups of people who are working in secret against the rest of us.”
We found that a tendency to believe in conspiracies strongly predicted the belief that fraud would be to blame if the respondent’s preferred candidate did not win. A person who generally did not believe in conspiracies had only a 33 percent chance of blaming fraud for their candidate’s loss. A person who strongly believed in conspiracies had an 81 percent chance of blaming fraud.
Another factor was party. After the 2012 election, we found that partisanship was a better predictor of belief in voter fraud than the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. Unsurprisingly, Republicans were more likely to believe that fraud had occurred than were Democrats. When asked about specific types of fraud, Republicans were significantly more likely than Democrats to see bribery and false identity as likely. This reflects their concern that U.S. residents who are ineligible to vote may become registered because of errors in voter registration drives, or because these residents impersonate actual registered voters.
However, there are certain kinds of fraud that Democrats cite more often than Republicans do: voter suppression and intimidation. Democrats spearheaded the effort to ensure that African Americans could vote, earned the durable loyalty of African Americans at the ballot box, and fear that, even now, African Americans will be denied the right to vote. Thus, Democrats have been particularly concerned about the actions of state legislators or state elections officials that might reduce the turnout of African Americans, as well as some other minority groups.
In short, each party thinks the other is cheating, and attempts to curb such cheating (whether it exists or not) are seen as further attempts to cheat. This has an ironic implication for the potential effects of Trump’s rhetoric: Majorities of Americans already agree with him, at least when their party loses.