There are two questions underpinning Donald Trump's Sunday afternoon tweets in which he clearly hoped to undercut confidence in the results of this month's presidential election. First, are his claims accurate? And, second, why claim that the results of an election you won were tainted?
The first question is the easier one to answer, because it involves no mind reading. Trump's tweeted claim that “millions of people . . . voted illegally” earned four Pinocchios from The Washington Post's fact checkers. It appears to have stemmed mostly from one tweet issued by one person, that then made its way to the conspiracy site InfoWars.
Trump followed that up with another tweet.
What's fascinating about this one is the states that Trump targeted. Before Election Day, when Trump could be forgiven for expecting to lose, he repeatedly pointed a finger at Pennsylvania, seizing on long-standing (and long-questionable) rumors about in-person voter fraud in Philadelphia, where some heavily black precincts recorded no votes for Mitt Romney in 2012.
But then something surprising happened: Trump won Pennsylvania. So now the focus has shifted to three other states: California, New Hampshire and Virginia.
What's the evidence of fraud in those states? The conservative site Gateway Pundit, which has repeatedly helped to amplify unfounded rumors in support of Trump over the election cycle, picked out examples from each state in service of bolstering the president-elect's charge and the “liberal media's” “refusal to cover the voter fraud stories.”
- A story about 19 dead people being registered to vote in Virginia that was covered by The Post.
- A story about a man in California finding a bundle of blank absentee ballots on his neighbor's mailbox that was covered by Fox News Channel.
- A story from James O'Keefe's Project Veritas from the primary election about how you could vote illegally in New Hampshire if you wanted to, and how some Bernie Sanders staffers speculated that it happens.
None of those things is demonstrated voter fraud, in-person or otherwise. There was another story out of Virginia about a man accused of illegally registering people to vote, but as the prosecuting attorney for the state noted, “there is no allegation that any illegal vote was actually cast in this case.” Catching people trying to register voters illegally (often because those people work for registration efforts that may put a premium on quantity) is very different from those registrations going undetected and being used to cast ballots — something for which there's no evidence. (To which the inevitable reply is: That's because it's not being caught. That's an argument, of course, that can be used as evidence of nearly any theoretical, invisible wrongdoing.)
California's secretary of state rebutted Trump on Twitter:
That gets us to our second question: Why?
Padilla is probably pretty close to the mark when he says that Trump “is troubled by the fact that a growing majority of Americans did not vote for him.” It's not really a majority of Americans, mind you; it's a majority of Americans who voted, which is only a subset of all Americans.
But it's true that Trump lost the popular vote, and it's true that his doing so was in large part a function of voting in California. One out of every eight people in our country lives in California, and Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton by nearly 4 million votes — with more than a million ballots waiting to be counted.
Trump's frustration that he'll be inaugurated despite having less demonstrated support than his opponent is the most likely explanation for his tweets. He's clearly annoyed that Clinton agreed to participate in Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein's efforts to review balloting in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states (an annoyance also made clear on Twitter). It's remarkably similar to what happened when he lost the Iowa caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.): At first, he accepted the result as it was. Within a day or two, though, he began lashing out at Cruz, accusing him of stealing the vote in the state.
Of course, there's no evidence that Cruz did anything that could be identified as “stealing” the election. But that wasn't the point. The point was that Trump was mad. (Incidentally, this was also the genesis of “Lyin' Ted.")
There has been some social-media speculation that Trump is laying the groundwork for federal efforts to curtail voting access. That's probably backward. It's more likely that Trump is leveraging long-standing, unfounded murmurs of rampant voter fraud as a way to assuage his ego, just as he claimed that Cruz stole the election to save face.
That isn't to say that Trump won't push for new rules on voting; he very well may. It just seems that, in this case, the simplest explanation is most likely to be accurate. There's absolutely no evidence that Trump lost the popular vote by a 2 million-plus vote margin because of fraud from dead or illegal voters. (Scale is always important here: Had those 19 registrations in Virginia been used to vote, it would have been 0.0004 percent of the total in the state. But they weren't.) There's plenty of evidence, though, that Trump is incensed at being the second choice of more of the country's voters, even if he's the first choice of our electors.