There are two competing theories about how American elections fail to accurately capture the sentiment of the electorate. One theory, propagated by President Trump, holds that rampant voter fraud is committed by people unable to vote, swaying elections unfairly. Another theory holds that laws enacted to combat fraud also have the effect of adding new barriers to voting that disproportionately affect demographic groups that, as it happens, tend to vote Democratic.
As it turns out, only one of those theories is supported by evidence: There are numerous examples of voter suppression, places where new restrictions on voting curtail turnout, and there is no evidence of rampant voter fraud. But since each position is embraced by one of the two major parties and because this is a polarized time, this is a disputed issue.
On Monday, the Pew Research Center released a survey looking at how Americans see these dueling problems. To do so, though, it used an interesting strategy, asking respondents how big fraud or suppression would be depending on how many incidents occurred (in a million-voter election).
Overall, voter suppression was considered a major problem by more Americans. In each case, the number of people saying that fraud or suppression were a problem increased as the number of theoretical incidents increased. Put another way: More voter fraud or more voter suppression is seen as a bigger problem.
But, as expected, views differ by party. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to consider suppression a major problem at every level that it occurs. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see fraud as a problem.
What’s particularly interesting, though, is how those views contrast within each party.
For example, more Democrats think it’s a major problem if one person is kept from voting than if 10,000 people were to vote illegally! Granted, there’s no evidence that such a thing has ever happened, but that’s not what is being asked. What’s asked is if it did happen, whether it would be a major problem. Four in 10 Democrats say it wouldn’t.
Views of each problem among Republicans are more even. Generally, though, fraud is more likely to be seen as a major problem than suppression.
What’s fascinating about these results is that there are documented examples of thousands of people in an election having their vote suppressed because of laws that make voting more cumbersome. Researchers in Wisconsin estimate that nearly 10,000 Wisconsinites were blocked from voting in 2016 because they lacked proper identification. A study released in 2014 found tens of thousands fewer voters in Kansas and Tennessee in the wake of new voter ID laws.
These laws restricting voting are generally imposed by Republican legislators, often while arguing that they’re necessary to combat voter fraud. More than half of Republicans think that even one illegally cast ballot is a major problem; only a little more than a quarter of Democrats agree. But that these laws also have the effect of something that three-quarters of Republicans call a major problem — obstructing hundreds of legal votes — doesn’t seem to prompt objections.
(Interestingly, Pew also found a correlation between how supportive respondents were about increasing diversity in the United States and how much they supported making voting as easy as possible.)
Pew also asked members of the two major parties whether they viewed the opposition as committed to ensuring fair and accurate elections. About a third of Democrats said Republicans were very or somewhat committed to that goal. About four in 10 Republicans said the same of Democrats.
How much these views overlap with the parties' positions on fraud and suppression isn’t clear.