A recent poll showed something that is not getting the attention it deserves in American politics. When asked whether they believed there was voter fraud in the 2020 election that helped Joe Biden win, 75 percent of Republicans replied in the affirmative. The poll also indicated that this is not a strictly partisan issue; 40 percent of independent voters concurred.
Left-leaning pollsters have chalked this up as another partisan quirk, similar to “birtherism.” But this is different. Birtherism was a crude way to call a disliked president into question. Election fraud calls the system itself into question.
Commentators have been quick to dismiss this. Ross Douthat at the New York Times, for example, recently published an article in which he constructs three pseudo-Weberian “psychological types” that believe in election fraud. One of the psychological types stood out both in form and content: the “outsider intellectual,” which he defines as an extremely smart person “whose self-identification is bound up in constantly questioning and doubting official forms of knowledge.” Douthat believes that the outsider intellectuals are fooling themselves by engaging in confirmation bias—latching on to various “inevitable anomalies” and taking these as evidence of fraud.
Let us weigh the evidence. What leads people—often intelligent, reasonable people—to think that there may have been electoral fraud in this year’s presidential election?
First and foremost, they went into the election with the expectation of fraud. Due to the pandemic, there was a new system of mass mail-in voting. Anyone who was paying attention could see that an inevitable train wreck would follow. In September, Attorney General Bill Barr laid out the problems clearly on CNN to an almost comically confused Wolf Blitzer. Some may pretend that these conversations never took place and that the ghost of electoral fraud rose from its crypt on November 4, but they are not fooling anyone.
Second, the election itself played out extremely strangely in real time. Many people went to bed assuming that Donald Trump had been elected president but woke up the next morning to see his enormous lead in key swing states disappear almost in an instant. You need not be overly subject to “outsider bias” to have this shake your confidence and provoke you to ask questions.
Third, and most important, is the evidence. Yes, there is evidence of fraud. Not comprehensive, cut-and-dried evidence, but strongly suggestive evidence nonetheless. The most compelling is the statistical evidence, some of which was presented by President Trump himself in his speech on fraud: In many of the swing states, Trump’s lead was eroded in a single instant when a large batch of ballots that heavily skewed Biden was dumped into the system.
These dynamics seem highly unusual. Douthat and others may claim that they are “inevitable anomalies” cherrypicked to construct a soothing narrative. Not so. Data analysts have techniques to check if anomalies are random or not. If anomalies are random then they should not be biased—in this case, that means that as many anomalies should favor Trump as favor Biden. But analysis of these large ballot dumps shows clear, systematic bias in favor of Biden.
Does this prove fraud? No. These biases could be due to extremely pro-Biden cities reporting mail-ins in a totally different way than all other cities. But even if that were the case, it would be suspicious: Why would these key cities report their mail-ins differently? These statistical anomalies cry out for an explanation.
Then there is the sworn testimony. There is an awful lot of it. Within a week of the election, the Trump legal team claimed to have 200 sworn affidavits. More have accumulated since. Perhaps this is mass hysteria and these people are like Puritans testifying at the Salem witch trials. But to simply assume this off the bat, especially in the face of the other evidence, is uncharitable at best and a sign of cognitive bias at worst. What is more, recent video evidence seems to back up at least some of this testimony, indicating that many mail-in ballots were counted with little or no oversight.
Moreover, the simple fact is that very few mail-in ballots were rejected in this election cycle relative to previous cycles. The world’s greatest democracy not only vastly expanded the dubious mail-in voting system in this election, but loosened the rules to let greater proportions of these ballots count. In theory, the rules were loosened to ensure that voters were not disenfranchised. But as Trump’s legal team rightly points out: This cuts both ways. If this system allows for widespread fraud, then legal voters are de facto disenfranchised by having their ballots nullified by fraudulent ballots.
To crudely dismiss the concerns of a large share of the American population regarding electoral fraud is dangerous, especially for the stability of the system itself. People need to trust in the system. Pushing anomalies—“inevitable” or not—under the rug is a terrible idea, especially in a country as fraught with division as contemporary America.
In addition to this, the concerns expressed about mass mail-in voting prior to the election have proved true. This system is dangerous and destabilizing. Some will say that this can be cured at the state level or that Republicans can compete with Democrats to game the system. This has been true of other electoral “innovations.” But mass mail-in ballots are different, as shown by the very fact that this innovation has given rise to widespread belief in mass voter fraud. It may also be harder to wind back than previous innovations: A wise person would take very seriously how deeply some of the changes of the lockdown have become embedded in our society.
For these reasons, conservatives—both partisan Republicans and those interested in maintaining political stability—should take electoral reform very seriously in the coming years and should keep an open mind about claims of electoral fraud. Perhaps that will result in them being cast from the insider tent, but one gets the sense that the insiders do not have much clout with the public anyway. Pursuing electoral reform will likely prove both wise and politically prudent in the coming years.
John William O'Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.
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