“Voter Fraud” Conspiracies are a Fraud: 2020 Election Edition

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Donald Trump’s December 5th rally in Georgia was an opportunity to promote Republican candidates in the state’s upcoming runoffs. But more than anything, it was another chance for the president to bask in the adoring eyes of his base and to disseminate baseless claims of voter fraud. In typical super spreader style, the president gathered thousands of supporters – mostly without masks – in a rambling, hour and 45 minute rant that lamented the Democrats for having “cheated” and “rigged our presidential election,” and that filled supporters with false hope that Trump would “still win” the election after mass voter fraud was exposed.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but the available evidence conclusively documents how voter fraud is exceedingly rare in U.S. elections. As one study from the Brennan Center for Justice summarizes: “most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices,” while documented voter fraud ranges between .00003 to .0025 percent of votes cast in U.S. elections. Another academic study finds just 31 instances of voter fraud in more than a billion ballots cast in U.S. elections from 2000 to 2014.

Regarding the 2020 election, even Republican-appointed judges and Republican state officials have rejected the Trump legal team’s and the president’s own personal demands that entire slates of Electoral College votes be handed to Trump due to alleged voter fraud, and contrary to the popular vote majorities in these states that went to Joe Biden. A sane observer would realize the absurdity of these fraud claims, particularly when they’re routinely rejected in case after case in courts of law, due to a total failure to present any systematic evidence of voter suppression or fabricated votes. Trump’s clumsy claims don’t pass the simplest of smell tests. Why if the Democrats were so incredibly effective in overturning popular pro-Trump majorities in state after state, were they so bad at cheating that they managed to lose nearly a dozen seats in the House of Representatives? And why did they fail to capture most seats in the Senate?

That Trump persists in making unsubstantiated voter fraud claims is a testament to his toxic authoritarian personality, and to the malignant narcissism that now characterizes presidential politics. He can’t conceptualize even the possibility that he lost an election because most voters simply don’t like him. Trump would have Americans believe voter fraud is so pervasive that it occurs in countless municipalities across the country and is embraced by both Democratic and Republican state and national officials, the “fake news” media, judges appointed by both parties, and the “deep state.” This obsession speaks to the extreme McCarthyite paranoia and propaganda that has come to define American politics under this president.

Much of post-election media reporting has been consumed by coverage of Trump’s lies about voter fraud. But the distortion and deception does not end with the president. An examination of pre- and post-election polling also finds that Republican partisans have put forward what appear to be bad faith claims about electoral manipulation and suppression. Pre-election Reuters-IPSOS polling from July found that eight in ten Republican registered voters said they were concerned about “organized voter fraud by political actors hoping to sway the results of the elections.” Similarly, USA Today-Suffolk poll from late-August found that 83 percent of Republican registered voters said they were concerned mail-in voting would be associated with voter fraud, compared to just a third of Democratic registered voters.

Pre-election warnings about mass voter fraud were heavily propagandistic, springing not from demonstrated evidence from past elections, but from Trump’s own speculative statements. This propaganda continued on election night, with Trump claiming he “won” the election if only election-day returns were counted, and in a preemptive effort to undermine the credibility of mail-in ballots that were known before election day to cut more than two-to-one in favor of Biden. But Trump’s claims were highly disingenuous, as he sought to preemptively undermine public trust in an election that he feared he would lose, prior to a single vote even being cast. This fearmongering was embraced without a shred of evidence, consistent with Trump’s longstanding efforts to depict as fraudulent elections (2016, 2018, and 2020) in which he and Republicans lose the majority of votes.

Trump’s voter fraud claims radically intensified following the election. And his supporters continued to buy into his lies. One early-November Politico-Morning Consult poll found that 70 percent of Republicans believed the election was not “free and fair.” Similarly, a mid-November Monmouth University poll found that 77 percent of Republican voters agreed Biden only won because of voter fraud.

There’s good reason to ask the question: to what extent are the above survey results indicative of respondents deceiving pollsters. Motivated reasoning appears to drive many Americans to make conclusions about the legitimacy of election outcomes before a single ballot has even been counted. For example, late-August Suffolk polling revealed that nearly a quarter of Americans (24 percent) admitted prior to the election that they were not “prepared to accept the outcome of the election as being fair and accurate” if their preferred candidate lost. This trend was common among partisans on both sides of the aisle.

There are numerous reasons to suspect that rightwing claims of voter fraud are being made in bad faith. First, they exist completely independent of evidence, and were being articulated by most Republican voters before a single ballot was even counted. Second, the voter fraud claims are being perpetuated by a president and by supporters who behave in way that suggests they are not terribly concerned with the devastating effects said fraud, if it were true, would wreak on democracy.

Consider Trump’s own behavior. He’s spent years undermining the very idea of democratic elections, claiming they are corrupt and fraudulent. Then he encourages his supporters to turn out, which they do in record numbers. Once he loses the popular vote and Electoral College, he intensifies his lies about voter fraud. Until it comes time for the next election – the Georgia runoffs. And now the president expects his supporters in Georgia to turn out again in mass, while simultaneously accepting that the election is rigged in advance against them. What does it say about Trump’s supporters that they would embrace a president who rants and raves for nearly two hours about a stolen and rigged election and mass voter fraud, and then tells them with a straight face to turn out in the Georgia runoffs, that their votes matter, and that Republicans are going to win?

It’s no small Orwellian feat to simultaneously claim that American elections are fraudulent to the point where they routinely resulted in fake popular majorities for Democrats in the last three election cycles, while convincing your supporters to continue participating in such a farce. Or, alternatively, we might conclude that this is all just transparent bullshit on the part of both Trump and his base, and that they’ve constructed bogus narratives for public consumption that allow them to avoid publicly admitting that the 2020 election represented a majority electoral mandate that rejected not only Trump, but Trumpism as a political phenomenon.

We don’t have to imagine or speculate on what a sincere, good faith response to mass voter suppression would look like. I had numerous conversations with friends, family, colleagues, and fellow progressives prior to the 2020 election about what we should do if Donald Trump refused to leave office upon losing the popular vote, particularly if he somehow convinced the U.S. Supreme Court or state legislatures to throw out popular majority votes in swing states and declare Trump the “winner” of each state’s slate of electoral votes via a judicial or legislative coup. These conversations ended with a simple understanding: we would try to convince everyone we know that they have a basic ethical and moral obligation to refuse to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to a system so corrupt that it has fallen into a full-fledged dictatorship. We would refuse to recognize the U.S. as anything but a tin pot dictatorship and would protest immediately and continuously following the election until the crooks who stole the presidency were forcibly removed from power and the rightful winner took office. Most importantly, we would call for and participate in a national strike to shut the entire country down – to make the U.S. ungovernable until the actual winner took office.

This plan of action, I should add, was hardly based on idle words. Once it became clear on election night that Trump had declared himself the winner before all votes had been counted, and that he would seek to use the courts to overrule popular state voting outcomes, I and many of these friends took to the streets to demonstrate in the Lehigh Valley (PA) and elsewhere, joining with other community members to demand that our states “count every vote.”

If Republicans really believe the 2020 election was stolen, why have they refused to do the same in mass, when there are 74 million Americans who voted for Trump, and with a large majority of these voters agreeing that the election was stolen from them? An elite assault on the popular will via the dismantling of basic democratic electoral institutions would be the best reason to protest in mass – and there is no better motivation to shut down a country than preventing it from falling into dictatorship.

Of course, we know what really happened. There was no national strike. Nor were there mass Republican protests in Americans cities to oppose the alleged destruction of democracy. Or to shut down the country. Or to demand Trump be returned to office. This tells me all I need to know about the faux outrage that’s driving Republican lamentations of “voter fraud.”

I don’t see a majority of Trump supporters admitting that they are engaged in a conscious deception when it comes to their voter fraud claims. But the “lying Trump voter” hypothesis can be assessed indirectly. One way is to look at how many Republican Georgian voters are willing to go to the polls and continue to vote, despite the large majority of Republican Americans claiming to believe the “voter fraud” claims. From what we know, the two Senate runoff races remain extremely competitive, with polling showing that Democrat Raphael Warnock leads Republican Kelly Loeffler by a 52-45 margin, and with Democrat Jon Ossoff leading Republican David Purdue by 50-48. To the extent that these numbers are accurate (a big if with polling in 2020!), it suggests that the Republican base continues to believe in the legitimacy of American elections, so long as there is a chance that their preferred candidate wins.

Importantly, only 13 percent of registered voters surveyed indicate that they will boycott the Georgia runoffs because “the voting process is rigged.” The above findings suggest that only a small number of Republican Georgian voters believe Trump’s propaganda about rigged elections. The large majority continue to believe that their vote matters, that large numbers of Republican candidates can (and do) win in swing states and beyond, and that they can impact change by participating in the electoral process.

Other evidence also suggests mass Republican deception when it comes to alleged voter fraud. One likely reason that’s been floated for why the polls were off in 2016 and 2020 in predicting presidential winners is that there was a “Trump effect” via respondents deceiving pollsters about their voting intentions, perhaps in an intentional effort to delegitimize all those “fake news” polls Trump has spent so many years railing against. Such claims relate directly to the “shy” or “hidden Trump voters” hypothesis, in which academic pollsters identified Trump supporters in 2016 who were “included in surveys but did not openly express their intention to vote for Trump.”

Pollster Brad Coker talks about shy Trump voting as strong among specific demographic groups such as college-educated white women, who said in 2016 pre-election polls that they would vote for Hillary Clinton over Trump by 25 to 32 percentage points, but who only favored Clinton by 6 percentage points on election day. Coker notes that this misrepresentation continued in 2020, with college-educated white women favoring Biden by 27 percentage points pre-election, but by only 10 to 15 points (based on various estimates) on election day.

Finally, some data suggest that Trump voters were also more likely to conceal their votes from friends, family, and pollsters. As Republican pollster Neil Newhouse explains based on his own polling data, 19 percent of those who voted for Trump in 2020 say they “kept their support secret from most of their friends.” Adding to such deception, pollsters and academics write about Trump supporters being more likely to distrust pollsters and to avoid talking with them, thereby increasing the survey “non-response bias” among Trump voters in election polls. Princeton University scholar and pollster Sam Wang talks about the problem of non-response bias among individuals with lower levels of “social trust” in society, politics, and government, who are less likely to respond to share their voting preferences with pollsters, but more likely to vote for Trump. This lack of “social trust,” Wang warns, may relate to the rise of the QAnon conspiracy theory, with the movement’s adherents more likely to express high social distrust and being “disinclined to answer opinion polls.”

Trump supporters’ electoral propaganda about specters of lost liberty has little to do with their thoughts about American democracy. As recent social science research concludes, Trump supporters are more likely to claim they are concerned with electoral perversions, but these claims have little to do with their overall assessments of U.S. democracy. Political Scientist Brendan Nyhan concludes in his examination of survey data from the 2018 midterm elections that Republicans and Trump supporters were significantly more likely to say they were concerned with the integrity of the electoral process after being exposed to claims about voter fraud, but not more likely to voice distrust for “a democratic political system” itself. This finding overlaps with the larger point that Republican Trump supporters are more likely to lament the perversion of elections, while not actually internalizing this rhetoric when it comes to their actual voting behavior and beliefs about democracy.

The cynical adoption of voter fraud propaganda may be common within the Republican Party, but it is also dangerous. Even if Republicans hollering about fictitious voter fraud are disingenuous in their claims, and even if suspicion of the winner is relatively more common when one’s party loses a presidential election, the risk coming out of the 2020 election is that baseless rhetoric about electoral fraud will not only galvanize Republicans, but muddy the waters when it comes to our understanding of who won this and future elections. While the major networks began to call the election for Biden on November 7th, large numbers of Americans remained uncertain about the outcome a week to a week and a half later, with only 54 percent believing in mid-November that there was “enough information” to determine a winner, and a large minority – 44 percent – feeling there was not. Suspicion of the legitimacy of American presidential election outcomes has now become a chronic problem, with distrust of the winner being more common whenever Democrats win presidential races (2008 and 2020) than when Republicans win (2004 and 2016). This trend is a sign of the radicalization of the Republican Party and it represents a significant threat to American electoralism.

A digital copy of DiMaggio’s Rebellion in America can be read for free here.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.