The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump declares that his voter-fraud conspiracy theory is ‘not a conspiracy theory’

President Trump speaks during a visit to White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., on April 5, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

President Trump was in West Virginia to talk about tax reform, so, naturally, he began talking about the results of the 2016 election, immigration, obstruction of justice and his idea that millions of people cast illegal votes.

The path he took to discussing voter fraud went like this. (This is not made up.)

  • His administration is working on a new version of NAFTA.
  • But Mexico was helpful on curtailing the caravan of immigrants coming up from Central America.
  • They have strong laws on immigration, but America has weak laws, thanks to Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.).
  • We’ve going to get tougher laws and the wall.
  • One tougher law will deal with “chain migration.”

That excludes a number of other riffs, including on sanctuary cities, “liberating” towns from the dreaded MS-13, “obstruction of justice” by the mayor of Oakland, Calif., and, naturally, rape.

But this idea of chain migration was his jumping-off point. He talked about a terrorist attack in New York City in October that he blamed on the policy. Democrats like chain migration, though, he said, because they think those new immigrants are going to vote Democrat.

“They are doing it for that reason, because they aren’t going to be voting with us for the most part. A lot of them aren’t going to be voting,” he said. “A lot of times, it doesn’t matter, because in many places, like California, the same person votes many times. You probably heard about that.”

“They always like to say, ‘Oh, that’s a conspiracy theory!’ ” he continued. “Not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people, and it’s very hard because the state guards their records. They don’t want to see it.”

Millions of people voting illegally? Oh, that’s a conspiracy theory. Or, at least, there is literally no evidence that hundreds of people vote illegally in California or any other state, much less millions. I suppose the underlying theory that Trump embraces is that Democrats conspire to ensure that these millions of votes are cast, making it a conspiracy theory, but that’s beside the point. The point, put as finely and directly as possible, is that Trump’s assertion is nonsense.

But let’s flesh this out a bit.

Trump has claimed in the past, on the strength of a few different erroneous things, that millions of people vote illegally in the United States.

Voter fraud is rampant because millions of dead people are still on the voter rolls. He took up this line of argument even before the 2016 election, when his hope was to bolster an excuse for a possible loss, not, as it is now, to try to explain why he lost the popular vote.

He seized on a 2012 report from the Pew Center on the States that found that 1.8 million dead people were on the voter rolls. Why? Because when people die, their families don’t prioritize informing the state to have their registrations canceled. As the authors of that report insisted repeatedly after Trump brought this up, that doesn’t mean that 1.8 million votes are cast in the names of those dead people.

In fact, there are almost no instances each year in which a dead person is found to have voted, a fairly simple thing to check for. Two women did face possible charges for casting ballots for dead people in 2016. Both were casting votes in support of Trump.

Trump’s assertion that California “guards its records” is based on California joining a majority of other states in rejecting a demand from his ill-fated voter-fraud commission for voter data. But voter data can be purchased easily from data providers — not exactly an example of California burying critical information outside of the public eye.

California’s secretary of state received 948 reported cases of fraud in 2016. Of those, it determined that 89 were worth investigating. Of those, 56 were alleged double votes. We found no record that any of those led to arrests. In Riverside County, the district attorney sought 60 search warrants last year to investigate possible illegal voting. Again, no record of charges exists. Even if there were 149 cases of fraud — which, again, doesn’t seem to be the case — that would be about one out of every 95,000 votes cast in the state in 2016.

Voter fraud is rampant because math says it is. The former vice-chair of Trump’s fraud commission, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has alleged that he has found a certain sample of fraudulent votes in his state that, if extrapolated out to the full population of the United States, indicates that hundreds of thousands of noncitizens had voted. (Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) did some similar math.)

The problem is as follows. Let’s say you suspect that eight people in a population of 1,000 committed voter fraud, for whatever reason. Extrapolate that outward to the full United States and you’re looking at 2.6 million people voting fraudulently. But everything hinges on those 1,000 people being representative — and on those eight people having committed fraud. You can’t simply take a small population, assume a number of them voted illegally and then announce that millions of people did the same nationally.

In Kobach’s case, his math included people who might have voted illegally, not people who had. He has tried to prosecute fraud cases and, statewide he has obtained nine convictions or plea deals — over the course of multiple state elections. Most of those convictions were of older people confused about the law. Since 2012, millions of votes have been cast in the state.

Voter fraud is rampant because of this one study. One common reference point for proponents of the conspiracy theory is a 2014 study from political scientists at Old Dominion University that found, as Trump said at an event in October 2016, that more than 1 in 8 noncitizens were registered to vote.

As explained in great detail at FiveThirtyEight, the study’s determination 1) wasn’t that figure and 2) wasn’t accurate anyway. One of the authors of the study acknowledges that inaccuracy, though he insists that some noncitizens probably do vote. (If they’re doing so in Kansas, Kobach hasn’t found them.)

Voter fraud is rampant because it could happen and lots of people see suspicious things. At one point shortly after his inauguration, Trump told a story about how his golfer friend Bernhard Langer was in line to vote in 2016 when he noticed that people “who did not look as if they should be allowed to vote” were allowed to cast ballots even though he was turned away.

There are scores of similar stories about people seeing things that they think were inappropriate or suspicious and that proponents of the idea that voter fraud exists amplify to heighten skepticism. Weird ballots! Dead people being sent ballots! Folks going to vote who couldn’t even speak English! Etc.

A key point is that heightened attention is being paid to the idea that there is rampant voter fraud — and yet there still aren’t many arrests for the crime. It’s like ghosts: Now that everyone has a camera in their pockets all the time, isn’t it odd that we haven’t captured any ghosts on film? With so many people looking for fraud (and lifting up fraudy-looking things), why aren’t we finding any? Instead, people tend to cite things that could theoretically lead to fraud as evidence of fraud. It’s a bit like accusing everyone who owns a crowbar of burglary.

Incidentally, Langer is not a U.S. citizen, so he can’t vote in U.S. elections. But as he later told the press, he wasn’t the person in Trump’s story, anyway.

Voter fraud is rampant because a guy on Twitter said it was. Trump did this.

Trump has never, at any point, provided any evidence of rampant voter fraud — or even minor voter fraud. His voter-fraud commission collapsed largely because of ineptitude but also, in part, for the reason that your ghost-busting company never turned a profit. Trump keeps talking about it, though, for two reasons.

First, because he wants to accuse Democrats of coddling immigrants who are in the country illegally because they want Democratic votes.

Second, because he lost the presidential election in the country’s largest state by a humiliating margin, and it’s reassuring to think that it was a function of a huge conspiracy to violate federal law that was covered up by the state of California instead of a reflection of views of him as a candidate.

Why these conspirators who are so capable that they can mask millions of federal felonies without detection were nonetheless unable to send 100,000 of those millions of votes across the border into Arizona to win that state for Hillary Clinton has never been explained.