A couple of days ago, I tweeted this:

My point was that calling what apparently happened in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District “voter fraud” would grant unjustified legitimacy to President Trump’s and other Republicans' claims of rampant voter fraud across the country. It would suggest that it was possible — in an unwarranted way.

But my colleague Philip Bump, as he is wont to do, took a contrarian view. He thinks that, although it’s important to note that President Trump’s allegations that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election are completely baseless, refusing to call what apparently happened in North Carolina “voter fraud” is too cute by half. He thinks it’s a rather meaningless distinction.

So we debated on Slack. Here’s that debate.

BUMP: I disagree with Aaron

BLAKE: This is wholly out of character.

BUMP: That you’re wrong? Not really.

I just think it’s dumb to call Trump’s allegations “voter fraud” and then hand-wring over this given that both his made-up thing and this involve orchestrated efforts to cast ballots that the ostensible voter doesn’t know about. What’s the actual difference?

BLAKE: He is saying that the votes were real, just that they were illegal: This is actual votes being changed/altered.

BUMP: That doesn’t make sense.

In trump’s scenario, Person A, organized by Group 1, pretends to be Person B and casts a ballot for Candidate C.

In this case, Person X, organized by Group 2, takes Person B’s ballot and alters it to cast a ballot for Candidate Z.

What's the difference?

BLAKE: Person A is an actual voter committing fraud.

By voting.

Person X is altering the legitimate vote of Person B, rather than casting the ballot themselves fraudulently.

BUMP: This is a nonsense distinction.

BLAKE: In one case the actual voter is doing the fraud.

The point is that should be detectable in person. The other never would be.

Though I take your point that Trump is talking about a large-scale effort, rather than just people illegally voting.

BUMP: That's why the modifier “in-person” exists!

BLAKE: Voter fraud = the voter committing fraud.

Option 2 isn’t that.

BUMP: How is Person A a voter but Person X isn’t

BLAKE: Person X isn’t the voter.

BUMP: Each is casting a ballot for another person.

BLAKE: Person X is altering an existing voter’s ballot.

BUMP: Person A isn’t Person B either.

BLAKE: Person A is literally voting, though; they are a voter, however illegitimate.

BUMP: If I’m not registered and I vote for you illegally, why is that different than me taking your absentee ballot and filling it out for you?

BLAKE: Because in the first case the person voting is committing fraud.

BUMP: Who is “the person” you’re referring to? And are you messing with me?

BLAKE: I’m not! It’s Person A.

BUMP: Answer my question using me as the example.

BLAKE: This is tiresome.

BUMP: Because you’re wrong.

BLAKE: No, I just can’t keep proving how I am right enough for you.

The point is voter fraud is the voter committing fraud.

The vote is being altered in the second case. The voter is the victim of fraud, not the perpetrator.

Also, the first case could be detectable in real time if precautions are taken.

BUMP: Answer my question using me as an example.

BLAKE: If you come in and vote in my name, you are an actual voter committing fraud.

If you take my ballot and alter it, I am the actual voter and you are defrauding me.

I realize you think it’s a distinction without a difference. The point is whether the voter is committing fraud: In Option A, they are; not in Option B though.

Can I watch soccer now?

BUMP: Yes, but it makes no sense.

And you're conflating “voting” with being at the polling place.

BLAKE: No. The person voting.

BUMP: If I come in the polling place and steal the ballot from your hand and fill it out, it’s no longer voter fraud but if I go there and pretend to be you it is?

BLAKE: It is voter fraud because you are actually doing the voting in my name. I haven’t yet voted.

In the case of the absentee, they have voted — even though the vote hasn’t been counted — and that vote has been altered.

BUMP: So if [Leslie McRae] Dowless takes the ballot before it’s filled out at all, it’s voter fraud. But if part has been filled out, it’s election fraud?

BLAKE: If the voter has cast the ballot or believes they have, and then it’s altered, that’s election fraud.


BLAKE: I will take this as a concession

BUMP: So this is ultimately your rationale for insisting on electoral fraud as a term vs. voter fraud.

BLAKE: Correct. One is someone committing fraud in an election; the other is an actual voter committing fraud.

BUMP: But that distinction doesn’t make sense.

But who cares.

Go watch garbage sport.

BLAKE: I realize you don’t think that, but I also realize you are frequently wrong. So...

Why shouldn’t voter fraud be fraud committed by an actual voter? It is literally the phrase!

BUMP: This is the bad, wrong delineation that makes no sense.

The delineation I finally got you to is at least a distinction that exists.

BLAKE: But you don’t dispute it’s a delineation?

I don’t argue the efforts could be similar and it could be a distinction without much of a difference in some cases, but to me “voter fraud” entails people actually being able to cast ballots themselves that are fraudulent. It suggests a different problem with the system than someone taking lawful ballots and altering them before they are counted.

It’s like writing a fraudulent check vs. someone taking your check before it is cashed and superimposing their name on it. The first kind of fraud is on the person writing it. The second is on someone else and may not be instantly detectable.

BUMP: That distinction falls apart under any real scrutiny. But I think the bigger problem is the motivation that a lot of people have to insist on a hard-line differentiation here. There’s no rampant in-person voter fraud, despite mostly Republican insistences that there are. We’ve written any number of times to point that out. While I agree “voter fraud” is imperfect, the effort to retcon North Carolina into some new term seems more like an effort to avoid having to explain the difference between in-person and absentee fraud than an actual real distinction.