President Trump’s efforts to root out voter fraud in the 2016 election were always a charade. Before Election Day, he offered dire warnings in his campaign speeches about voters near Philadelphia (winkwinkwinkwink) and in other places who were voting illegally. His campaign put together a halfhearted poll-watching system, encouraging supporters to blow the whistle on apparent fraudulent activity at the polls.
Then, unexpectedly, Trump won Pennsylvania, and his claims of fraud in the Keystone State vanished from his portfolio faster than an Atlantic City casino. Instead, he found new targets: California — a state which, by itself, made up the vote margin by which Trump lost the popular vote — and New Hampshire, a state he narrowly lost. In Michigan, the closest state of the cycle, Trump wasn’t worried about fraud having been a factor; his lawyers declared in a court filing in that state opposing a recount that “All available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.”
Trump seized on any nonsense he could to undermine the idea that he’d lost the popular vote, including one assertion made by a guy on Twitter that his analysis showed millions of fraudulent votes. Pressed by CNN for evidence of that claim — made only weeks after the election — Gregg Phillips, the man who made it, declined to offer any and eventually deleted his tweet.
A less-noticed claim of Trump’s was that all of this fraudulent voting benefited his opponent in 2016. During an interview with ABC shortly after his inauguration, Trump said of those alleged millions of fraudulent votes, “they would all be for the other side. None of ’em come to me.” Why make this utterly bizarre claim? Because the only point of asserting fraud after the fact is so that Trump can convince himself and others that he actually won the popular vote. If there were 3 million fraudulent votes and 1 million supported Trump, he still lost. (Incidentally, in our look at actual fraud that occurred after the election — finding precisely four examples — most of those caught casting fraudulent votes supported Trump.)
There has been no evidence presented whatsoever of actual, rampant voter fraud in any recent election, much less the 2016 race. As president, George W. Bush launched a five-year investigation to find fraud and came up empty. There are a variety of reasons that the idea itself makes little sense; the logistics of getting thousands of people to vote illegally without detection (much less millions) fall apart under even slight scrutiny. To assert that millions of people committed a federal crime but that no one detected it is ridiculous, not to mince words.
Nonetheless, Trump in May of last year created a commission aimed at rooting out voter fraud “to promote fair and honest Federal elections.” That effort was a disaster basically from the outset, with a request for voter data from every state facing broad backlash for its scope. From there, things didn’t get much better, with just two hearings and not much else. (At one hearing, time was spent talking with a witness who advocated for gun-purchase background checks being applied to new voters.)
On Wednesday, Trump killed the commission.
“Despite substantial evidence of voter fraud,” a statement read, “many states have refused to provide the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity with basic information relevant to its inquiry.”
Trump followed up on Twitter on Thursday morning.
1. There is not substantial evidence of voter fraud.
2. While the states that refused to turn over data were “mostly Democrat,” that’s an intentionally misleading statement meant to set up the second half of Trump’s tweet — which itself is the most revealing part of this entire charade.
If by “Democratic states” we mean states that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, it’s true that most of those refusing to provide data did so. Business Insider compiled an updated list in October of those states that were and weren’t planning to hand over voter data. Of those 17 states that weren’t planning to give data, 11 backed Clinton. So “mostly,” in the sense of “more than half,” were Democratic.
But if you count “Democratic states” as ones led by Democrats — that is, led by a Democratic governor who could order the state’s bureaucracy to comply with Trump or not — Trump’s wrong. Of the 17 states that denied Trump’s request, 12 have Republican governors.
What’s more, while deep-blue states like California were in the “deny” camp, so were some deep-red ones. Wyoming. Tennessee. Texas (after a court ruling). South Carolina. The secretary of state in Wyoming explained that he was not complying to “safeguard the privacy of Wyoming’s voters because of my strong belief in a citizen’s right to privacy.”
It’s important to note that Trump’s entire voter fraud claim leverages a long-standing argument made by Republicans. The proposed solution to this unproven voter fraud is legislation mandating the use of ID at polling places. That legislation generally has the happy-for-Republicans side effect of reducing the number of Democratic voters, since the imposition of ID laws generally makes it harder for poorer people to vote.
But that’s not really why Trump is circling back to blame Democrats. Trump has to imply that Democratic states are hiding something because it’s the only way his nonsensical claims of voter fraud aren’t revealed as nonsensical. Trump has to dive deeper into the conspiracy theory to keep it alive. There will always be an excuse that Trump will leverage to prop up his central thesis: That he actually won the popular vote in 2016.
If you’re inclined to believe Trump when he asserts that millions of people poured into California and cast illegal votes without anyone being able to prove that even a dozen did so, then you’re also likely to believe Trump when he says that the California state government is deliberately hiding millions of violations of federal law to preserve their majority in state politics (a majority that somehow nonetheless still includes a number of Republican state and federal legislators).
One is left to wonder: Does Trump actually believe this?