The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and Kobach say illegal votes may have given Clinton the popular vote. The math disagrees.

Warning: I am going to apply some logic and reason to an illogical and unreasonable position that has been staked out by President Trump and now today by the head of the White House's voter-fraud commission, Kris Kobach. This argument will not prove persuasive to either of them, but facts matter, and it's worth noting just how fantastic a claim they are making.

Trump has said that he believes there were millions of people who voted illegally in the 2016 election — specifically 3 million to 5 million, conveniently enough to account for his 2.8-million-vote loss in the popular vote. Also conveniently, he claimed that every single one of these votes was for Hillary Clinton and that they generally occurred in states that she won, not the states he won.

President Trump made remarks on July 19 at the first meeting of his commission investigating his allegations of voter fraud during the 2016 election. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Reuters)

On Wednesday, Kobach suggested that Trump's allegation is valid.

“We will probably never know the answer to that question,” the Kansas secretary of state said on MSNBC when asked whether 3 million to 5 million illegal votes delivered Clinton a popular-vote win, “because even if you could prove that a certain number of votes were cast by ineligible voters, for example, you wouldn’t know how they voted.”

Much like the existence of the Sasquatch, Trump's theory can't be ruled out. Kobach and Trump are just asking questions.

But as Philip Bump notes, the fact that Kobach can't discount this possibility suggests that his investigation is hardly serious. And for proof of that, you just have to take a look at the actual statistics.

Trump contended that all of these illegal votes were for Clinton. If that were somehow true, there would still need to have been 2.8 million illegal votes to make the difference in the popular vote. That would mean that more than 2 percent of all ballots cast were illegal.

To his credit, Kobach is less certain that all of these supposedly illegal votes might have been for Trump. If we don't grant that highly questionable premise from the president, the percentage of votes that would need to be illegal to deliver Clinton her popular-vote win shoots up:

  • If Clinton won 75 percent of all “illegal” votes, then 4.4 percent of all votes would need to have been illegal.
  • If Clinton won two-thirds of all “illegal” votes, then 6.7 percent of all votes would need to have been illegal.
  • If Clinton won 60 percent of all “illegal” votes, then 11 percent of all votes would need to have been illegal.
  • If Clinton won 55 percent of all “illegal” votes, then 22 percent of all votes would need to have been illegal.

You get the idea. The idea that 1 out of every 30 or even 1 out of every 22 votes was cast illegally is suggesting a massive fraud. And the idea that this could have been perpetrated without basically any detection in the eight months since the election is pretty astounding.

Let's say for the sake of argument, though, that only 1 out of every 50 votes was illegal (“only,” I know) and every illegal vote was for Clinton — as Trump alleged. In that case, it would have to have been part of some massive effort to exploit the election process by only the political left and not at all by the political right. Okay, with me so far? This effort would need to have been hugely sophisticated — enough to create millions of illegal votes while Republicans were unable to create any — but also dumb enough to put them in the wrong states for the electoral college. The fact is that Trump beat the polls in the states that mattered, and the states that were close almost universally went for Trump. That suggests that the illegal-votes effort was remarkably unsuccessful and/or derelict in the only states where it really should have been going for illegal votes. Oops!

And finally, as I've argued before, Trump's contention that this type of fraud is even possible throws his own electoral college victory into doubt much more than it throws Clinton's popular-vote win into doubt. While 1 out of every 50 votes (or more) would need to have been illegal to account for Clinton's popular-vote win, given Trump won by less than 80,000 total votes in the three states that mattered — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — only 1 out of 1,650 votes would need to have been illegal to swing the electoral college to Trump.

I'm just saying, it can't be ruled out. I'm sure Kobach would agree.

Update: And he apparently does!