Barring future developments, the political legacy of former Texas acting secretary of state David Whitley will not be particularly favorable. Whitley, who resigned on Monday, is best known nationally for levying a charge of rampant voter fraud in his state — a charge that remains unproven months later and which has been shown to have been based to a substantial degree on erroneous assumptions.
There is, however, a certain magic in making allegations about widespread voter fraud, particularly from a position of authority. It has been a Republican white whale for decades, without any direct evidence of its existence. For the current Republican president, the idea that elections have been influenced by rampant fraud has become a near-obsession, with President Trump embracing rumors of fraud even in the most abstract, unfounded strokes.
So Trump readily embraced Whitley’s claims, retweeting a summary allegation from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and tweeting his own variant on the numbers after seeing a report on the Fox News show “Fox & Friends.”
A central problem with Whitley’s allegation is that his assessment of the number of noncitizens who allegedly had voted didn’t take into account that those individuals may have — and many had — become citizens before they cast a ballot. (As we reported in February, nearly 1 million Texas residents became citizens during the decade from 2007 to 2016, a period that overlaps with Whitley’s allegations.)
The Texas fraud debacle might, to another politician, have been humbling, an example of the dangers of jumping on enticing allegations before they have been vetted. But Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that this isn’t a lesson he’s interested in learning.
Consider the aside in his tweet about the Texas allegations, randomly looping in California. The state was the subject of his first post-2016 allegation about the existence of rampant voter fraud.
Why? Well, the obvious upside to winning the electoral college in 2016 was that Trump became president. And the obvious downside to losing the popular vote is that word “popular”: Trump prides himself on — or, really, obsesses over — his popularity. The first feud his administration had with the media was over the number of people that attended his inauguration. That he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton was unacceptable, so, riffing on his pre-election allegations about the existence of fraud in states such as Pennsylvania, he adjusted his claims to target California, Virginia and New Hampshire.
Why those states? California, because Clinton’s margin in that state alone gave her a popular vote victory of nearly 3 million votes. Virginia, presumably because a prominent voter-fraud hype man had made allegations about voting in the state. New Hampshire, because Trump lost the state narrowly.
In none of those cases, though, has widespread fraud actually been demonstrated.
Take New Hampshire. During a meeting with senators the month after he took office, Trump reiterated his claim that fraud had cost him a victory in the state. In response, state officials — including the Republican attorney general — quickly rejected the allegation. Several noted, justifiably, that there was no evidence to support Trump’s claim that illegal voters had been bused in.
In Virginia, the commissioner of elections similarly rejected Trump’s claim, calling it “unfounded.” The same guy who had alleged the fraud in the first place, Hans von Spakovsky, ended up earning a spot on Trump’s short-lived presidential commission aimed at uncovering proof of rampant voter fraud. Prior to joining, von Spakovsky objected to the inclusion of Democrats on the commission. The commission ultimately disbanded without finding any fraud, after Trump alleged that Democratic states were obstructing its efforts by not sharing data. (In reality, Republican states were similarly wary about turning over the information that Trump’s panel requested.)
Then there's California. Trump's allegations in this regard seem mostly to be rooted in the idea that immigrants in the country illegally are voting overwhelmingly for Democrats, an allegation that presupposes that people worried about deportation would risk turning over their information to the government and risk a federal crime in order to ensure that California's electoral votes go to a Democratic presidential candidate, as they have in every election since 1988.
At one point, Trump seized upon an allegation made on Twitter by a guy named Gregg Phillips.
Phillips had claimed, less than a week after the election, that his organization had proof that 3 million noncitizens had voted. Pressed for evidence, he repeatedly refused to offer any to the media. There’s been absolutely no suggestion since that there was any such evidence at any point.
Trump’s claim that 3 million people had voted illegally swelled at times to as many as 5 million in meetings with legislators. During an interview with ABC News’s David Muir shortly after his inauguration, Trump was asked about the evidence for his claims.
“Well, we’re going to find out,” Trump said. “But it could very well be that much.” He pointed to a Pew Center on the States report that noted that nearly 2 million dead people were still on the voter rolls — which of course is far more suggestive of grieving families being slow to update county election boards than that anyone cast ballots for the departed individuals. (This, by the way, was thoroughly debunked even before the 2016 election.)
Muir told Trump that the author of the Pew report told him that there was no evidence of rampant fraud. Trump bizarrely claimed that the author was “groveling."
In an interview before the Super Bowl in 2017, conservative journalist Bill O’Reilly similarly pressed Trump on his claims of rampant fraud by noncitizens.
"A lot of people have come out and said that I am right,” Trump replied.
“Yes,” O’Reilly said. “But the data has to show that 3 million illegals voted.”
"Look, we have a lot of different — you go to the voting booths and you see what was going on,” Trump said. “But to get that — forget all of that. Just take a look at the registration as we're going to do it."
Forget all of that.
As the midterms approached, Trump again warned about the risk of illegal voting. In that election, though, there actually was a federal race apparently tainted by significant fraud: A team of people working on behalf of a Republican candidate in North Carolina apparently forged and cast a number of absentee ballots.
Trump was asked about this in February, as the news was coming to light.
"I condemn any voter fraud of any kind, whether it's Democrat or Republican — or when you look at some of the things that happened in California, in particular,” Trump said. “When you look at what's happened in Texas with all of those votes that they recently found were not exactly properly done, I condemn all of it."
That reference to Texas, of course, is a reference to Whitley's allegations. Trump was also unwilling to take news reports about what happened in North Carolina at face value.
"And that includes North Carolina, if anything — you know, I guess they're going to be doing a final report,” he said. “But I'd like to see the final report. But any form of election fraud, I condemn."
At one point, Trump referred to “a million fraudulent votes” being found in California. That appears to stem from work by Judicial Watch, including an allegation that Trump had retweeted a week or so prior. The head of that organization, Tom Fitton, has been alleging that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants have voted — including nearly a million in 2018.
His evidence? Well, that claim from Texas. Also because his organization sued Los Angeles County to get 1.5 million outdated voter registrations off the books — many of which were again deceased individuals or people who had moved away. That appears to be the “million fraudulent votes” to which Trump was referring — a million people whom the county agreed to remove from the voter rolls because, in some cases they were dead. There’s no suggestion that many — or any — votes were cast for those individuals.
Earlier this month, Judicial Watch boasted of its success at getting Trump to retweet its allegations.
Time and again, Trump has made allegations of rampant fraud that not only have not been borne out but that often were rooted in flawed assumptions. Time and again, claims that American elections were tainted by systematic efforts to cast illegal ballots have been hollowed out or left unproven, and time and again Trump has lifted them up anyway. There’s no indication either that Trump has learned any lesson about making unfounded accusations or that he will be more wary about such claims in the future.
A central irony to his assertions about voter fraud, of course, is that he alleged fraud would happen in 2016 mostly in states that he ended up winning. He frequently offered ominous predictions about fraud in Philadelphia, but, after he won that state, turned his attention instead to Virginia and California.
But no assertion from Trump's team was more ironic than the one offered to a court in Michigan, where a recount was underway in 2016 after Trump's 11,000-vote victory.
"All available evidence,” Trump's legal team offered, “suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake."
True then; true now.