“There’s a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “Democrats value as many people as possible voting, and they’re willing to risk fraud. Republicans are more concerned about fraud, so we don’t mind putting security measures in that won’t let everybody vote — but everybody shouldn’t be voting.”
“Not everybody wants to vote,” he added, “and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they’re totally uninformed on the issues. Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”
This is not a novel formulation, certainly. The idea that some people are simply too ignorant to vote has a long and obviously toxic history. Intelligence and literacy tests were a central part of the effort to limit Black voting in the Jim Crow South, though those tests were predicated on excluding Black votes — not on any actual question of intelligence.
But neither is Kavanagh’s formulation unique in the moment. There have been any number of similar statements in recent years, claims that some people are simply too uninformed or flighty to be allowed to cast a ballot. Generally, of course, those unwelcome votes come from the speaker’s political opponents. This is the fundamental measure being applied: those voters who disagree with me are necessarily too ignorant to vote.
The idea that most voters base their decisions on “the issues” is certainly dubious. If we take it at face value, though, we see how an emphasis on awareness of political issues itself benefits voters who are more likely to vote Republican.
Last year, researchers from MIT and Columbia University published a study considering how aware voters were of political news.
Their findings: “[T]he average individual in the best-informed group (wealthy white men aged 47 and more) is about 47% more likely to know the typical news story compared to the average individual in the least-informed group (low-income minority young women).” That former group, of course, is much more likely to be Republican than the latter.
Much of that difference in awareness of news stories, though, derives from the racial difference. Whites are far more likely to be familiar with news stories than are non-Whites, as shown in the graph at right below.
If the measure of being informed on the issues is awareness of political news, older White men tend to score significantly higher. (The study also found that Democrats were more likely to be aware of strongly pro-Democrat stories, as Republicans were more likely to be aware of — and retain — pro-Republican ones.)
But “familiarity with news stories” isn’t necessarily the proper measure for evaluating “being informed on issues” — or even a very good one.
We can be more direct. Pew Research Center has asked Americans to evaluate a number of verifiable (or, perhaps, generally verifiable) questions that allow us to get a sense of how informed different political groups are.
That research tells us that about two-thirds of liberal Democrats and 6 in 10 conservative Republicans could correctly identify Vice President Harris’s job before being elected to the Senate. More moderate voters were less able to do so. We also learn that conservative Republicans were more likely than any other group to believe that President Biden supported defunding the police — which he didn’t.
Of course, there was a broad push last year by Biden’s political opponents and the conservative media to link him to the often-unpopular movement to cut police funding. Those who cited Fox News as their primary source of election information were far more likely than any other group to say that Biden held this position. Among Republicans, those who mainly relied on Fox’s coverage were 17 points more likely than Republicans overall to think that Biden supported defunding police.
Misinformation is a type of information, but it seems pretty clearly not to be the sort of information we should prize before considering whether someone should vote.
Which brings us to the question at the heart of Kavanagh’s discussion with CNN: voter fraud. Pew asked respondents if fraud committed with mail ballots had been a major problem, minor problem or not a problem in presidential elections. Objectively speaking, voter fraud using mail ballots has on rare occasion been an issue in local or regional races. There’s no evidence that it has been a significant problem in presidential contests.
Yet about 4 in 5 conservative Republicans think that it is at least a minor problem, with half saying it’s a major problem.
Kavanagh himself reveals his position here, stating that Democrats are “willing to risk fraud” if it means more people vote. This implies a false choice between expanded access to voting and increased fraud.
A Washington Post analysis of votes cast in three states that have all-mail elections found that the rate of suspicious ballots cast in 2016 and 2018 was 0.0025 percent of the total. That’s not 0.0025 percent of the votes cast were fraudulent; it’s that a tiny fraction of ballots cast might have involved double-voting or votes cast by dead people.
But, of course, only a quarter of Americans were even aware last year that some states conducted their elections entirely through the mail.
Perhaps Kavanagh didn’t know that. Awareness of the fact was higher among Democrats.