The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In one quote, the core of the effort to undermine the 2020 election is revealed

A car license plate is shown during the “MAGA Drag the Interstate Rally” on Nov. 1, 2020, in Houston. (Mark Felix/For The Washington Post)
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It’s probably safe to assume that Donald Trump isn’t terribly concerned about undermining the results of the presidential election in Texas. After all, he won the state by six points and, so far, his flailing attempts to raise questions about his loss have centered on the states where he actually did.

But Texas state Rep. Steve Toth (R) has very much taken his party's rhetoric about voter fraud to heart. So the legislator from suburban Houston is proposing that there be a “forensic audit” of the results of the 2020 contest in his state. That science-ish-sounding term is very much in vogue at the moment, and we'll come back to it.

Toth’s proposal, though, is accompanied by a very important asterisk: It would only require investigation by counties with more than 415,000 people, as The Washington Post’s Eva Ruth Moravec reported on Thursday. There are 13 such counties in the state, 10 of which voted for President Biden last year. The 13th-most populous county, Cameron County, preferred Biden by a 13-point margin. If you kept going down the ranks of most-populous counties, incidentally, the next five most populous counties all preferred Trump. Convenient place to stop the review!

But Toth is not shy about the convenience at play. Moravec spoke with him and he explained his thinking.

[W]hile Toth said he would support a statewide effort, he also argued the undertaking would be too expensive and time-consuming. Asked if he would consider including some smaller counties, Toth replied, “What’s the point? I mean, all the small counties are red.”

And that, right there, is the crux of the issue.

No one in the United States has done more to undermine confidence in elections than Trump. But he didn’t invent the idea. That there is rampant fraudulent voting in the country attributable to Democratic criminals is a long-standing assumption on the right. Trump internalized and leveraged this line of rhetoric because it offered him a convenient defense against twice losing the presidential popular vote. It wasn’t that American voters preferred Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, it was that Democrats cheated, to the tune of 3 million and 7 million votes, respectively.

The scale of that allegation alone is laughable: Somehow 18 times more illegal votes were cast in 2020 than there were home burglaries in 2019, but authorities could only identify two dozen? And this occurred despite the incredibly complicated logistics of conducting such a crime, from the thousands of people at various levels of government who’d need to be involved to the sheer luck required to cast the ballots without conflicting with actual voter preferences. But recent Economist-YouGov polling shows that most Republicans — three-quarters of them — do think this happened last year. Research from Pew Research Center published on Thursday shows that only 30 percent of Republicans have any confidence that Americans are prevented from casting illegal votes. (Most Democrats are correctly confident that illegal voting is not rampant.)

It’s important to realize that it’s not just that Republicans think fraud occurs regularly; it’s that they think fraud occurs regularly without detection to the Democrats’ benefit. Hence Toth’s quote shrugging about red counties. Hence Trump’s repeated intonations that all the fraudulent votes that were cast benefited Biden, layering an unprovable claim on top of an unprovable claim.

This is also why the “forensic audit” movement is so ridiculous. You’re probably familiar with the flagship “audit” in Arizona, now entering its fourth month. It has been repeatedly questioned for a variety of reasons, most of which are downstream from the fact that it’s deeply partisan. It’s not an audit of the results in Arizona, just in Maricopa County, the state’s largest county and one that Biden won. I mean, why look at other counties? Most of them are red!

Sarcasm aside, this is actually an important point. What we have in Arizona is a conclusion looking for evidence, not a search for evidence looking to reach a conclusion. Arizona Republicans think something bad happened and are trying to prove it. It’s akin to security agents from a totalitarian regime showing up at the house of an opposition leader looking for evidence of espionage. Do you think they’re not going to find things that could be construed as condemning?

And do you think that a similar search of their own houses wouldn’t yield the same result? This was a feature of such regimes in the Cold War era: Loyalists who suddenly found themselves on the outside also found themselves vulnerable to the same tricks they’d once deployed. If you applied the same hurricane of “review” to Arizona counties besides Maricopa with the same level of confirmation bias, the results would unquestionably be the same.

For all of the foolishness of the statistical reviews of the election conducted by a guy named Douglas Frank — reviews basically proving that a series of data will correlate with an average of data from the series — he is at least honest in applying his analysis to even Trump-voting counties in states. And, there, he finds the same “proof” of fraud as in blue counties (since, again, his analysis is self-confirming). In other words, looking to prove fraud generally, he uses an instrument so blunt that it finds fraud everywhere — which Trump’s allies then use to argue that there was fraud that harmed Trump.

Toth isn’t the only legislator to propose an audit in his state, even if he’s the most honest one. Republicans in Georgia and Michigan (two other states Biden flipped) have made similar calls, with a review of ballots in Biden-voting Fulton County in Georgia earning coverage on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. Once again what was found was the sort of edge-case weirdnesses that occur in every election, probably more frequently in more populous places. Review other counties and you’d almost certainly find similar oddities — and almost certainly find no more actual proof of fraud.

In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) has sent letters to several counties demanding information about the election. (Mastriano, like other Republican legislators, traveled to Arizona to get a sense for how it was conducting its “audit.”) Three counties that have received such requests from Mastriano are Tioga County (21,000 votes, won by Trump), York County (239,000 votes, won by Trump) and Philadelphia County (744,000 votes, won by Biden). It’s not clear how the counties were selected, but it’s pretty obvious that Mastriano is mostly interested in the third of those three. Do some Stasi-esque poking around in Philly and it won’t take long to gin up enough “questionable” votes to convince the base that Trump won Pennsylvania.

Mastriano hasn't said that he's focusing on Philadelphia in the way Toth was so honest about his priorities. But he has revealed his biases in other ways, like showing up at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

All of this flows downhill from Trump’s unproven and indefensible claims about election fraud. And that flows downhill from the long-standing assumption that rampant fraud occurs and benefits Democrats. Even with the close examination Trump prompted (but hasn’t financially supported) after 2020, there’s no evidence that this is the case, just as there hasn’t been in following reviews after any recent election. It’s an article of faith, born of partisan distrust.

Toth doesn’t even try to mask it.