The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 2020 fraud hunt: Among the biggest wastes of time in U.S. history

Pro-Trump protesters allege voter fraud at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center in Phoenix on Nov. 7, 2020. (Caitlin O'Hara for The Washington Post)

It was an NPR story that pushed me over the edge.

The report, published last week, detailed an effort in Colorado to go door-to-door interviewing voters about the ballots they cast in November 2020, 20 months before. The point of that exercise was to somehow prove rampant fraud had occurred in the state during that year’s election — a state won by Joe Biden after having voted for each of the previous three Democratic presidential candidates. But the canvassers interviewing residents in various parts of the state were clearly acting from a belief that something untoward had happened, echoing a theme elevated by Biden’s opponent in that election even to this day.

The chance that the canvassers find even one example of voter fraud are low; that they will uncover a rampant campaign of fraud substantial enough to call the results into question lies somewhere near “a guy in Denver being hit a meteorite from the Alpha Centauri” in the universe’s book of statistical probabilities. Yet they persist.

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According to a report published by the group conducting the canvas, the group had knocked on 10,000 doors in four counties by March. It was that number, to be specific, that spawned this article. Assuming it’s accurate (which I would recommend against, for reasons that will shortly become apparent), it represents a scale of human energy and time that’s hard to grasp in the abstract.

So let’s conduct a little thought experiment. Imagine trying to speak with people in 20 different households in your neighborhood. Perhaps you live in an apartment building, in which knocking on 20 doors, waiting for a response and talking to those who answer might take about 15 minutes. After all, lots of people aren’t home or won’t answer their doors. If you live in a more suburban area, it will take longer, getting to different houses and engaging in similar conversations. Let’s say 30 minutes, minimum.

To contact 10,000 doors in that latter scenario, we’re talking about 250 hours of time. In the apartment building example, it’s half as much — only 5.2 solid days of walking and knocking.

And for what? To learn that most people aren’t home or don’t want to talk to you about their vote — or that, yes, they voted, why do you ask?

This is just one small facet of the effort of uncover purported fraud in the 2020 presidential election, an effort that I feel comfortable describing as one of the biggest wastes of time and money in American history.

Consider that similar efforts to uncover fraud using the same mechanism have occurred in other states. Pennsylvania, more than once. Washington. North Carolina. Even in Otero County, N.M., where Donald Trump won with more than 60 percent of the vote, a fervent supporter of Trump helped convince county leaders to invest in an audit of results and a canvas — neither of which yielded anything fruitful. That didn’t stop the county from trying to block its 2022 primary results out of concern that the taint of fraud might somehow have lingered. Only intervention from the state moved those results forward.

That’s the other part of these efforts, of course: the response. People walking from door-to-door wasting their own time is one thing. Wasting the time of public officials, governmental resources and the courts to try to prove Trump right in his futile effort to blame fraud on his loss.

To some extent, this happens in many elections. There are often court cases that are never going to go anywhere. There are often audits that are doomed from the outset. In the weeks after 2020, there were more than normal: more than 60 cases filed by Trump’s campaign and his allies, recounts in a number of states, including several in Georgia alone. At most, Trump netted a handful more votes. The results were not affected in any significant way. In many elections, there are also a number of isolated examples of voter fraud, as there were after 2020. Those, too, are almost never enough to affect the outcome, as they weren’t in the most recent presidential contest.

Even ignoring that baseline of normal fruitless expenditures of energy, the aftermath of 2020 has seen an enormous waste of time and money.

Let’s look at the most obvious waste of time and money, the “audit” of the results in Arizona’s Maricopa County. Millions of dollars were spent in a five-month effort to dig up any possible dirt on the composition of the vote there in the 2020 contest. Scores of people were involved in the audit effort, dedicating hours to poring over ballots and searching for hints of bamboo, among other things. Every single ballot was examined and recounted. When the audit was concluded, the results were unchanged.

But the waste continued. There was a lengthy hearing involving members of the state legislature and various parties that had participated in the effort, all of whom spent hours cobbling together explanations of what they found. The county was repeatedly forced to rebut nonsensical claims from the “auditors,” and participated in an hours-long hearing explaining why the elements of the election presented as dubious were, in fact, well within the range of normal activity.

The result? No change to the election.

The media, of course, spent a great deal of time covering the audit and its components, as it has the effort to prove “fraud” more broadly. Since Election Day in 2020, for example, there have been more than 21,000 15-second cable-news segments on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC mentioning fraud in the context of an election. That’s about 225 solid days of coverage across those three networks in which fraud was discussed. That’s just three television networks and doesn’t include, say, newspapers.

Then there’s the fraud-conspiracy circuit. Otero County’s review of its election results was triggered after a public hearing featuring a man named David Clements, who insisted that investigating fraud would be fruitful. A review conducted by NPR found that Clements had participated in 63 events in 25 states aimed largely at elevating false or unfounded claims about fraud. He was one of four individuals who alone had participated in 308 events in 45 states over that period. Figure each event was at least an hour and (for the sake of a quick calculation) attracted 100 attendees and that’s more than 30,000 hours of time wasted by attendees — excluding travel time, etc. More than 1,280 24-hour days of time wasted at these events.

Among the four men included in NPR’s analysis is one worthy of mentioning separately: MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. Lindell was at 44 events in 19 states, part of his robust effort to prove the election from Trump stolen. It has included the production and release of a series of films purporting to show rampant fraud (without success) and innumerable media appearances.

Last August, Lindell engaged in a particularly wasteful waste of time, a “cyber symposium” held in South Dakota at which he promised attendees that he would offer up proof of foreign interference in the 2020 vote count. He did not.

What he did do is bring maybe 100 or 200 people to South Dakota for three days of discussion about voter fraud, much of which involved his sitting onstage riffing about things. It was covered live by a right-wing media service with, at one point, tens of thousand of people wasting their time by watching remotely. A number of news outlets stuck around long enough to learn that nothing new would be revealed; others wrote debunks of Lindell’s claims off the remote stream.

A few months ago, the index of wastes of time got a new entrant: the release of the film “2000 Mules” by Trump ally Dinesh D’Souza. The film purports to show evidence of an effort to collect and submit illegal ballots during the 2020 election, though it completely fails in that task (showing precisely zero demonstrable instances of illegal voting).

Making the movie itself involved a decent amount of time and money, certainly. But consider the amount of time and money wasted in actually watching it. At launch, streaming it cost almost $30, though that’s now been reduced slightly. Salem Media Group, an executive producer on the film, claims that 1 million people watched “2000 Mules” by May 12, another claim that might be taken with a grain of salt. But if that number is accurate as of today, that means 90 million minutes of time spent watching D’Souza’s utterly unconvincing film. That’s the equivalent of 171 full years of human life.

That’s just the actual watching of the film. The group that provided D’Souza with the data around which he centers the film is called True the Vote. Its leaders have offered testimony before multiple state legislative bodies, including in Wisconsin and Arizona. Its focus on proving alleged fraud predates 2020, but “2000 Mules” has injected True the Vote’s rhetoric broadly into the right-wing political conversation. This month, True the Vote’s leaders attended a conference of conservative law enforcement officials where fraud was a central topic. A number of the sheriffs in attendance indicated they had or would make uprooting purported fraud a central component of their work — almost certainly meaning more wasted money and time.

There is no evidence of any significant fraud in any recent national election, 2020 or otherwise. There was no reason to think the 2020 contest would be tainted by fraud even at the time. That so many people have spent so much time trying to prove that fraud occurred without success only reinforces that the initial skepticism with which fraud claims were treated was the proper position.

Yet some continue to spend time and energy pointing out the ongoing lack of evidence. Officials at the state level (as in Michigan) have invested hours and enormous cost reinforcing the security of their elections. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post have written dozens of articles debunking these claims; PolitiFact has written even more.

This month, one of the most robust efforts to pick apart Trump’s false fraud claims was published by a group of long-standing voices within the Republican and conservative political universe. Over the span of 70 pages, the group elevates and then dismantles a flurry of claims made by Trump’s allies, mostly ones raised during the immediate post-election effort to win cases in court. It is thorough, detailed, nonpartisan — and an expenditure of time and money that does little more than reinforce that understood reality is indeed reality. In other words, it’s a huge investment of time that should not have had to have been invested.

An email to the group that produced the report asking how much time and energy went into its creation was not returned by the time of publication. Fair enough. We’ve all wasted more than enough resources on this nonsense already.