We often hear, including from President Trump, about allegations of rampant fraud involving people going to polling places and pretending to be someone else. (Sometimes, Trump alleged, they leave a polling place, put on a different hat and come back in to vote again — something that probably happens each time Halley’s comet swings by.) That’s in-person voter fraud, which has never been found to have happened to any significant degree in recent years. What happened in North Carolina involved absentee ballots and has often been described as election fraud since it wasn’t the voters themselves who are alleged to have broken the law.
None of this, though, is how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described it in a speech from the Senate floor Tuesday.
“Anyone who’s been attentive to the news these past few days has learned about the complete debacle that unfolded in last November’s election for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “Soon after Election Day, allegations of illegal ballot harvesting and vote tampering clouded a close result.”
“The wrongdoing seemed to have benefited the Republican candidate over the Democrat,” he continued. “Just last week we saw the state Board of Elections unanimously call for a new election.”
McConnell is not one to misspeak, particularly when reading from prepared remarks. His “seemed to have benefited” here is intentional, an effort not to withhold judgment but to cast doubt.
There’s no evidence at all that the Democratic candidate in the race, Dan McCready, benefited from any illegal activity. There’s no evidence that any illegal absentee ballot collection or alteration was conducted by anyone beside Dowless and his employees. And Dowless wasn’t just a volunteer, randomly picking his targets: He was being paid by the Harris campaign. The way his efforts came to light was that results in one county, Bladen County, seemed way out of whack from other counties — to Harris’s benefit.
Here, at this moment, the point of McConnell’s speech is clear. After his party was broadly silent about what happened in North Carolina despite its energetic stance on voter fraud for years, McConnell decided to flip the script.
“Now Madame President,” he continued, speaking to the senator overseeing the morning’s proceedings, “for years and years, every Republican who dared to call for common-sense safeguards for Americans’ ballots was demonized by Democrats and their allies. We were hit with left-wing talking points insisting that voter fraud wasn’t real. Never happens, they said. That fraud just didn’t happen. That modest efforts to ensure that voters are who they say they are and are voting in a proper place were really some sinister right-wing plot to prevent people from voting.”
This is simply dishonest. McConnell is intentionally conflating in-person, change-your-hat fraud with what happened in North Carolina, which wasn’t that.
It’s as though McConnell and his party had been complaining for years about burglars using crowbars to break into houses and then claiming validation when someone created a master key to unlock every front door on a block. The result is the same: The house has been violated. But the thing that the Republicans were warning about isn’t the thing that actually happened.
It’s also like burglars only broke into houses with crowbars a couple of times a year but to keep that from happening Republicans wanted anyone buying a tool to bring a birth certificate with them to Home Depot. And, just to strain this metaphor to the breaking point, that people who buy crowbars for legitimate purposes are mostly Democrats.
After all, the Republican solution to in-person voter fraud — which, again, isn’t what happened in North Carolina and, again, which happens only rarely — is to mandate that voters bring ID with them to the polling place. If people don’t have ID, they need to get one, often involving fees, visits to government offices and digging up missing documentation. It’s an encumbrance that falls more heavily on poorer Americans, who often overlap with groups that tend to vote Democratic.
A Government Accountability Office study completed in 2014 found that voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee probably dropped 2012 turnout in those states by 100,000 people. Those most heavily affected were younger people of color.
As for the voter ID laws being a “right-wing plot to prevent people from voting,” we’ll note that Republicans themselves have frequently said that a point or benefit of the laws is tamping down Democratic voting. It’s often framed by allegations that Democrats commit in-person fraud — again, there’s no evidence of fraud happening to a significant degree — but the effect is the same.
“So now as you might expect,” McConnell continued, “now that an incident of very real voter fraud has become national news and the Republican candidate seems — seems — to have benefited, these long-standing Democratic talking points have been really quiet. Haven’t heard much lately from Democrats about how fraud never happens. They’ve gone silent."
That repeated “seems” makes clear that McConnell wants us to believe that not only would his party’s jeremiad against voter fraud have prevented what happened in North Carolina but that somehow maybe the Democrats were also involved in dirty play.
He’s also again conflating the different kinds of fraud. Democrats have been far more vocal about what happened in North Carolina than Republicans, often — accurately — noting that Republicans themselves suddenly went quiet on the issue. They simply hadn’t found the sweet spot that McConnell did: pretending that the type of fraud that allegedly happened in North Carolina was the thing they’d been talking about all along. That all that talk about crowbars was proved by the existence of a skeleton key.
“Now some are singing a different tune,” McConnell went on. “Now there’s a new interest in ensuring the sanctity of American elections.”
I thought they’d gone silent?
“I’ve been focused for decades on protecting the integrity of elections,” McConnell concluded with a smile. “So I’d like to welcome my friends on the left to their new realization — they’ve just discovered! — that this subject really matters.”
The real irony here is that the futility of focusing on in-person fraud instead of absentee-ballot fraud has been known for years. In 2014, I spoke with someone from the Brennan Center for Justice who noted that the latter should be cause for broader concern even while Republicans focused on the former.
Why bother when you can instead simply reshape reality with a speech from the Senate floor?