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.