The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ludicrous effort to pretend that increasing voter turnout is nefarious

Michael Gableman delivers remarks to Wisconsin legislators in Madison on March 1. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal/AP)

Four hundred and eighty-two days after Donald Trump lost Wisconsin, a Republican who once sat on the state’s Supreme Court offered a theory: Perhaps he didn’t?

Michael Gableman was tapped by the Republican-led state Senate in Wisconsin to investigate various theories about how Joe Biden’s victory might somehow have been tainted — and Gableman responded with gusto. On Tuesday, he presented a lengthy report articulating his findings — a report that states that its aim was “not to challenge certification of the Presidential election.” And yet, given the opportunity, Gableman did exactly that.

“The legislature,” he said during Tuesday’s hearing, “ought to take a very hard look at the option of decertification of the 2020 Wisconsin presidential election.”

There is no such option, and, even if there were, it wouldn’t affect Biden’s presidency. But it is nonetheless useful to consider the argument in this context, because it suggests that Gableman found such dire misbehavior in Wisconsin in 2020 that the results of the election could not be trusted.

But he didn’t. He found nothing of any substance whatsoever, as his team’s report makes clear. What he did find, though, is revealing: He found a robust effort to increase voter turnout in the presidential contest, which, since it focused on non-White voters who are more likely to vote Democratic, seemed to him nefarious if not illegal.

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Since Time magazine first reported on a widespread effort to bolster elections at the county level and to increase turnout, the theory that the 2020 election was “rigged” by voter turnout efforts has been rampant. Right-wing pundit Mollie Hemingway has written repeatedly about these devious efforts to get more people to vote, offering rote turnout mechanisms with the literary equivalent of spooky music and one of those filters that makes it look as if something is being shown on an old television. It is part of the broad and energetic effort to once again prove Trump’s wild and false claims as sort of correct in one sense if you look at things the right way, an effort that, in the case of his false claims about the election being stolen, has included a dazzling galaxy of rationalizations.

Few of those efforts to rationalize Trump’s dishonesty are as dumb as the turnout-is-cheating claim, and few iterations of that claim are as dumb as Gableman’s.

Let’s start with the numbers. In 2012, Census Bureau data shows, about 75 percent of White citizens in Wisconsin voted, as did 78 percent of Blacks, 75 percent of Asians and 44 percent of Hispanics. In 2016, those numbers fell: Among each of the non-White groups, turnout was less than 50 percent.

There are a lot of reasons that turnout would have declined. The 2016 election had unusually low turnout relative to the country’s population, a function of the unpopularity of both candidates. But it’s more the case that turnout among non-White voters was unusually high in 2012 than unusually low in 2016. Older, wealthier people who own homes are more likely to vote, for a variety of reasons (such as that they have time to vote, they are in the habit of voting and they don’t need to update their registrations). Those are characteristics that tend to overlap with White communities more than non-White ones. Overlay the habit of legislators and election administrators to make it easier for frequent voters to vote — sometimes a function of nefarious intent, sometimes of customer service — and you find that there are lots of patterns that make it less easy for poorer and non-White Americans to vote.

For Republicans, there aren’t a lot of motivations to change those patterns. Why try to make it easier for groups that vote heavily Democratic to cast a ballot? So, in states with Republican legislatures, such as Wisconsin, there are often nonprofit or outside efforts to encourage turnout and make it easier to vote. That happens more in presidential contests, when groups fund national efforts to register and turn out voters. It happens all the time, and there’s nothing illegal about the effort.

So what does that mean in Wisconsin? Well, if you want to increase turnout among less frequent voters, you’re going to target groups that turn out less often, which, given the change from 2012 to 2016, means focusing on counties that have more non-White voters to turnout. In Wisconsin, that means counties such as Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Dane, Sawyer, Brown, Ashland and Rock. Each of those counties has a non-White population that makes up at least a fifth of the population. Understandably, then, an effort to bolster election access in Wisconsin focused on the cities of Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Kenosha and Green Bay — in Milwaukee, Dane, Racine, Kenosha and Brown counties.

Would increasing turnout among low-propensity voters in those places probably increase the number of Biden voters? Yes. Is that cheating? Of course not. These efforts aren’t suppression of White turnout or giving non-White voters some sort of unfair leg up. Instead, they’re efforts to reduce the barriers that cause poorer, non-White citizens to vote less often.

That’s not how Gableman frames the efforts. His report is blatantly obvious in its efforts to imply wrongdoing. Consider that he calls the cities targeted in 2020 the “Zuckerberg 5,” a reference to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), one of the funders of the effort. The “Zuckerberg” there is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook/Meta; the goal is to transfer skepticism of him and his company to this voter effort. The “Zuckerberg 5” sounds like a domestic terror cell from the 1960s, which is the goal.

So what did this effort run by the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) entail? Such horrors as using voter information “for selective, racially-targeted get-out-the-vote purposes,” as the report notes. (The report tries to gloss over the fact that voter data is readily available from a number of sources, including the state, in case you were wondering.) The initiative helped fund local efforts for turnout, including funding municipalities and other organizations to do so.

Consider this quote from the report, with the emphasis in the original:

“Turnout, otherwise known as ‘getting out the vote,’ (GOTV) has before 2020 been an exclusively partisan phrase (CITE) used by partisan campaigns to (1) identify; (2) locate; (3) inform; (4) persuade; and, (5) facilitate increasing the number of votes for the candidate that they favor.”

Turnout and GOTV are not the same thing, for what it’s worth, and GOTV efforts have long been both partisan and nonpartisan. But Gableman uses this weird conflation to try to paint CTCL as necessarily partisan (turnout is partisan ergo turnout efforts are partisan) because that allows him the rhetorical cover to attack it as devious. At one point he cribs from a right-wing group’s attack on the CTCL to identify the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s hiring of former Barack Obama aide David Plouffe as clear evidence of partisan intent. Plouffe wrote about the need to increase Democratic turnout and here we are! But Plouffe worked for CZI — alongside former Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman — not CTCL. It’s partisanship by association, but an association he needs to make claims like this:

“The Zuckerberg-funded CTCL/ Zuckerberg 5 scheme would prove to be an effective way to accomplish the partisan effort to ‘turnout’ their desired voters and it was done with the active support of the very people and the governmental institution [the Wisconsin Elections Commission] that were supposed to be guarding the Wisconsin elections administrative process from the partisan activities they facilitated.”

I’ll note that the “effectiveness” mentioned above was established with a citation to a conservative group called the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. In a report, it found that places targeted by the turnout effort saw increases in turnout for both Biden and Trump but that the increase for Trump wasn’t statistically significant. The total increase for Biden was estimated as being around 8,000 votes, according to this analysis. The number for Trump wasn’t indicated.

Biden won Wisconsin by more than 20,600 votes, so this would not have been enough to swing the result even if there hadn’t been any increase for Trump (which, again, there was). Even if these were somehow fraudulent votes that needed to be thrown out, they would not have affected the outcome. But there’s no indication that the votes were fraudulent, only that those voters might not have voted had the turnout effort not been in place.

Setting aside the difficulty in attributing the increase specifically to the turnout effort (given that turnout was up among Democratic voters nationally relative to 2016), the idea that something untoward happened depends entirely on the assumption that voters allowed to vote legally shouldn’t be encouraged to do so if they are going to vote against your guy. If that’s your position, okay. But that’s not rigging an election.

Even if this were an explicitly partisan group explicitly trying to turn out Democrats, the ethical or legal questions would lie with the government agencies, not the group or the voters. But Gableman’s report actually alleges that the turnout effort constituted an illegal bribery effort. The report points to a state statute indicating that a crime is committed by anyone that “offers, gives, lends or promises to give or lend, or endeavors to procure, anything of value, or any office or employment or any privilege or immunity to, or for, any elector, or to or for any other person, in order to induce any elector to: 1. Go to or refrain from going to the polls” or “2. Vote or refrain from voting.” This is confusing, but just follow the text I bolded: Gableman is suggesting that money was given to “any other person” — which he interprets as including municipalities — as inducement to get people to go to the polls. Ergo: bribery.

This has already been adjudicated. A U.S. district judge rejected the same argument about the same funding to those cities even before the 2020 election.

All of this effort to paint a turnout program as partisan bribery (though not actual illegal voting) makes up most of Gableman’s report. The rest mostly centers on an allegation that there was suspiciously high turnout in nursing homes. The report points to about a dozen examples of people whose families are suspicious about their elderly relatives’ votes; these incidents should certainly be investigated further. But, again, there’s no actual proof of fraudulent voting, much less anything significant to throw the election.

Here again, nearly 500 days after the 2020 election, we see a familiar pattern play out. Republican elected officials want to make Trump supporters happy by treating their unfounded claims of fraud as serious rather than actually confronting those claims. They hire an investigator who is starting from the conclusion that votes were stolen, as Gableman was here. Then the investigation serves as a giant, costly smoke machine so that the investigator can tell the legislators and Republican voters that, while you can’t see it, somewhere in that cloud is a raging fire.

In this case, that fire consists of trying to increase voting among those who have historically faced institutional difficulties in doing so. If that’s cheating, then so is offering SAT tutoring to students in disadvantaged school districts. Sorry if that expands the pool of Harvard applicants your kid is competing against.