Skip Navigation

The Iowa Caucus Exposed the Threat of ‘Voter Fraud’ Fearmongering

Dishonest groups seized on the Iowa caucus tech failure to spread voter misinformation and distrust.

February 10, 2020

There are many lessons to be learned from the chaotic end to Iowa’s Demo­cratic caucus about how to — and not to — run elec­tions.

But some­thing more sinis­ter came out of Iowa beyond botched elec­tion report­ing and embar­rass­ing elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion glitches. Even before the public learned of the report­ing prob­lems, polit­ical oper­at­ives and agit­at­ors outside of the Demo­cratic Party were sowing distrust in the Iowa caucus.

It star­ted with tweets by a conser­vat­ive activ­ist group called Judi­cial Watch. The group’s head, Tom Fitton, tweeted out about a report they recently released, claim­ing several of the state’s counties had more voters on their rolls than eligible voters in the county. Their specific claim was quickly debunked, as have been all recent panics about wide­spread voter fraud. Journ­al­ist Judd Legum of Popu­lar Inform­a­tion put out a compre­hens­ive take­down, demon­strat­ing that Judi­cial Watch’s numbers were incor­rect and its conclu­sions were misguided. Their claims were even refuted by Iowa’s Repub­lican secret­ary of state.

Never­the­less, the claim spread on social media as Judi­cial Watch’s tweets about the report garnered thou­sands of retweets, and the confu­sion around the Iowa caucuses’ vote-count­ing process offered new oppor­tun­it­ies for Judi­cial Watch and other fear­mon­gers to pile on. Pres­id­ent Trump’s sons sugges­ted that the caucus is being rigged. And his campaign manager said that it “would be natural for people to doubt the fair­ness of the process.”

This is a grimly famil­iar play­book from the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and its allies, and we are likely just seeing the open­ing salvo in a campaign to under­mine trust in the results of the 2020 elec­tion if it does­n’t go his way.

In the leadup to the 2016 elec­tion, then-candid­ate Donald Trump attemp­ted to dele­git­im­ize the results of the elec­tion in advance, claim­ing that the fix was in and that wide­spread voter fraud would swing the elec­tion to his oppon­ent. After the elec­tion, in an effort to obscure the fact that Hillary Clin­ton won the popu­lar vote, he claimed that 3 to 5 million people voted illeg­ally. Doub­ling down, he then set up a pres­id­en­tial commis­sion to root out supposed voter fraud.

Pres­id­ent Trump used these argu­ments for the specific purpose of enhan­cing the legit­im­acy of his elec­tion, but they didn’t come out of thin air — they carried forward a years-long project by a small cadre of activ­ists like Judi­cial Watch to build out a false narrat­ive about voter fraud to justify meas­ures to restrict access to voting. Ulti­mately, Trump’s argu­ments were roundly rejec­ted, even by party lead­ers like Paul Ryan and Mitch McCon­nell. His “voter fraud” commis­sion imploded under the weight of glar­ing mistakes and public ridicule. In fact, as the Bren­nan Center has demon­strated — and as every seri­ous researcher has confirmed — fraud by voters at the polls is vanish­ingly rare.

Never­the­less, the false narrat­ive has survived, with worri­some implic­a­tions for 2020. Trump’s effort to sow distrust in the outcome came after he won the elec­tion in 2016. What if these argu­ments are used by a politi­cian to discredit an elec­tion that he or she loses? There were initial efforts to do this in Kentucky last year, when incum­bent Repub­lican Gov. Matt Bevin sought to under­mine the results of gubernat­orial elec­tion he lost, ampli­fy­ing a ques­tion­able tweet driven by foreign bots and claim­ing vague “irreg­u­lar­it­ies” on Elec­tion Day. These unfoun­ded alleg­a­tions were rejec­ted, and he ulti­mately conceded.

The media frenzy for fast results makes us more suscept­ible to these lies. Even before polls close, there is a scramble to call the outcome. But as we should have learned from the 2000 Flor­ida elec­tion debacle, early results may be incom­plete. And as the coun­try upgrades our elec­tion processes, results will increas­ingly come slower, not faster.

There are good reas­ons for this. As states have added more conveni­ent options for voting, more voters are using mail-in ballots to vote. These ballots, which must be scru­tin­ized and processed, take longer to count than those cast at the polls. Provi­sional ballots are another voter-friendly innov­a­tion that adds time to the count­ing process. In addi­tion, elec­tion offi­cials should — and increas­ingly are — taking vital steps to ensure the secur­ity and accur­acy of elec­tion results. That includes care­ful post-elec­tion audits to verify the vote count and recounts in close elec­tions. These secur­ity meas­ures are time-consum­ing, yet essen­tial.

In short, we need to be prepared for slower elec­tion results in 2020. That’s usually a sign that elec­tion offi­cials are doing their job and that our system is more access­ible and accur­ate, not a sign of shenanigans.

There are clear lessons to be learned from this incid­ent about elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion, includ­ing that juris­dic­tions should not roll out untested new tech­no­logy right before a high-stakes elec­tion, that they must have robust back-up plans in case of system fail­ures, and that accur­ate paper records of people’s votes are essen­tial to ensure the integ­rity of the final result.

More broadly, we need to remain on guard against false claims of voter fraud and other efforts to under­mine confid­ence in elec­tion results for polit­ical advant­age. False claims of fraud are too often twis­ted to keep eligible citizens from voting. The great threat to our demo­cracy today is not ineligible voters voting — it’s eligible voters not voting.

What’s more, these cynical claims under­mine faith in the bedrock insti­tu­tions that make our nation strong. If we allow that, we only weaken our demo­cracy.