The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An unusually easy Trump debunking: There was no suspicious vote dump in Wisconsin

Workers count Milwaukee County ballots on Election Day. (Morry Gash/AP)

We will start not by debunking President Trump’s latest — or, more accurately, one of Trump’s latest — claims that something untoward happened in the 2020 presidential election but, instead, by contextualizing his efforts.

Trump wants the obvious will of the electorate to be disregarded and for himself to be given another four years in office despite his losing both the national popular vote and the electoral vote. To do so, he’s throwing out as many allegations of fraud as he possibly can, just this absolute blizzard of spaghetti strands being chucked at every nearby wall. None stick, but Trump doesn’t need them to. He just wants to be able to point at the blizzard itself and say, hey, how can we trust the election results when all these suspicious things happened?

It’s like Tom Brady losing the Super Bowl and then spending multiple weeks elevating every possible crackpot theory he comes across to accuse his opponents of cheating, accuse the playing field of being flawed, accuse the balls of being overinflated, accuse the weather of being disadvantageous, accuse the fans of being too loud or too quiet or both or neither, accuse everyone of everything that might get his fans to think, huh, maybe Brady actually won the Super Bowl. Or, better yet, to get the NFL to decide for some reason that maybe Brady should be given the Lombardi trophy, after all. To change the history books.

The best course of action is to simply ignore the protests, to recognize them for the nonsense that they are. But sometimes it’s useful to simply step back and demonstrate how utterly ridiculous the claims are. To grab a piece of spaghetti midair, if you will, and dissect it.

That analogy doesn’t work, but you get the point.

Here, for example, is a piece of spaghetti.

It is not unbelievable. It is nonsense. What’s depicted here isn’t “votes being added the following day.” It is “votes being counted on the night of the election.”

As Texas Monthly’s Christopher Hooks pointed out, this surge in votes appears to have been nothing more than vote results from Milwaukee County, the most populous in the state, being formally registered. Polls closed in Wisconsin at 8 p.m., and Milwaukee County began tallying its results. In the middle of the night, the county’s elections commissioner got into a police car to deliver the count.

The media was present and recorded the scene.

The total in Trump’s tweet wasn’t all of the votes from Milwaukee County, but it would account for most of them. Joe Biden won the county by a nearly 183,000-vote margin overall, with most of them registering as soon as the Milwaukee votes were added to the state’s total. Just like that, Trump’s lead eroded — because ballots from a county that ended up constituting about 14 percent of the total votes in the state were suddenly added.

Nor is that margin suspicious. Let’s compare county-level results from 2020 to the results in 2016. In most counties (50 of 72), the margin shifted to Biden’s advantage, relative to four years ago. That includes the state’s three most-populous counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha and Dane.

In general, though, the margins in each county were similar to what they were four years ago. Hillary Clinton won Milwaukee County by 163,000 votes; Biden won it by 183,000. Trump won Waukesha County by 63,000 votes in 2016; he won it by 56,000 votes in 2020. Each of those is about a 12 percent change.

Take out Trump’s “suspicious” votes and Milwaukee is suddenly a remarkably pro-Trump place.

In fact, the increase in votes cast for Biden relative to Trump in Milwaukee was more modest than it was in Dane or Waukesha. Biden received about 10 percent more votes than did Clinton in Milwaukee, while Trump got 8 percent more votes than he did four years ago there. In Waukesha, Biden received 31 percent more votes than Clinton, while Trump improved by 12 percent. In Dane County, the increases were 20 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

So, to recap:

  • The votes came a few hours after polls closed.
  • They came from the state’s most populous county.
  • The media documented them being delivered.
  • The margin recorded was in line with the shifts across the state.

Consider the alternative to Trump’s allegation, by the way. If that “dump” of ballots hadn’t occurred, there would have been almost no votes tallied in Milwaukee County at all. While that would certainly please Trump, it would also clearly indicate that something weird had happened. That there was the surge in votes made the results in the state obviously more accurate, not obviously less so.

Anyway, this entire article is inadvertently doing exactly what Trump wants, treating his allegations as even possibly accurate. He wants us to pluck those strands of spaghetti out of the air and even to point out how wrong they are because then we’re talking about his strands of spaghetti.

Trump lost. There’s no evidence of any substantial fraud at all. This is a particularly bad effort to demonstrate fraud. His interest isn’t in proving fraud, however, but in alleging fraud.

So it meets his needs perfectly.