How claims of voter fraud were supercharged by bad science

From MIT Technology Review:

* Published in 2014 by Jesse Richman, a political science professor at Old Dominion University, it argues that illegal votes have played a major role in recent political outcomes. In 2008, Richman argued, “non-citizen votes” for Senate candidate Al Franken “likely gave Senate Democrats the pivotal 60th vote needed to overcome filibusters in order to pass health care reform.”

The paper has become canonical among conservatives. Whenever you hear that 14% of non-citizens are registered to vote, this is where it came from. Many of today’s other claims of voter fraud—such as through mail-in voting—also trace back to this study. And it’s easy to see why it has taken root on the right: higher turnout in elections generally increases the number of Democratic voters, and so proof of massive voter fraud justifies voting restrictions that disproportionately affect them.

Academic research on voting behavior is often narrowly focused and heavily qualified, so Richman’s claim offered something exceedingly rare: near certainty that fraud was happening at a significant rate. According to his study, at least 38,000 ineligible voters—and perhaps as many as 2.8 million—cast ballots in the 2008 election, meaning the “blue wave” that put Obama in office and expanded the Democrats’ control over Congress would have been built on sand. For those who were fed up with margins of error, confidence intervals, and gray areas, Richman’s numbers were refreshing. They were also very wrong.

* Until Richman’s 2014 paper, the virtual consensus among academics was that non-citizen voting didn’t exist on any functional level. Then he and his coauthors examined CCES data and claimed that such voters could actually number several million.

Richman asserted that the illegal votes of non-citizens had changed not only the pivotal 60th Senate vote but also the race for the White House. “It is likely though by no means certain that John McCain would have won North Carolina were it not for the votes for Obama cast by non-citizens,” the paper says. After its publication, Richman then wrote an article for the Washington Post with a similarly provocative headline that focused on the upcoming 2014 midterms: “Could non-citizens decide the November election?”

Unsurprisingly, conservatives ran with this new support for their old narrative and have continued to do so. The study’s fans include President Trump, who used it to justify the creation of his short-lived and failed commission on voter fraud, and whose claims about illegal voting are now a centerpiece of his campaign.

But most other academics saw the study as an example of methodological failure. Ansolabehere, whose CCES data Richman relied on, coauthored a response to Richman’s work titled “The Perils of Cherry Picking Low-Frequency Events in Large Sample Sizes.”

For starters, he argued, the paper overweighted the non-citizens in the survey—just as the Black Midwestern voter was overweighted to produce an illusion of widespread Black support for Trump. This was especially problematic in Richman’s study, wrote Ansolabehere, when you consider the impact that a tiny number of people who were misclassified as non-citizens would have on the data. Some people, said Ansolabehere, had likely misidentified themselves as ineligible to vote in the 2008 study by mistake—perhaps out of sloppiness, misunderstanding, or just the rush to accumulate points for gift cards. Critically, nobody who had claimed to be a non-citizen in both the 2010 survey and the follow-up in 2012 had cast a validated vote.

Nearly 200 social scientists echoed Ansolabehere’s concerns in an open letter, but for Harold Clarke, then editor of the journal that published Richman’s paper, the blowback was hypocritical. “If we were to condemn all the papers on voting behavior that have made claims about political participation based on survey data,” he says, “well, this paper is identical. There’s no difference whatsoever.”

As it turns out, survey data does contain a lot of errors—not least because many people who say they voted are lying. In 2012, Ansolabehere and a colleague discovered that huge numbers of Americans were misreporting their voting activity. But it wasn’t the non-citizens, or even the people who were in Matt Braynard’s group of “low propensity” voters.

Instead, found the researchers, “well-educated, high-income partisans who are engaged in public affairs, attend church regularly, and have lived in the community for a while are the kinds of people who misreport their vote experience” when they haven’t voted at all. Which is to say: “high-propensity” voters and people likely to lie about having voted look identical. Across surveys done over the telephone, online, and in person, about 15% of the electorate may represent these “misreporting voters.”

Ansolabehere’s conclusion was a milestone, but it relied on something not every pollster has: money. For his research, he contracted with Catalist, a vendor that buys voter registration data from states, cleans it, and sells it to the Democratic Party and progressive groups. Using a proprietary algorithm and data from the CCES, the firm validated every self-reported claim of voting behavior by matching individual survey responses with the respondents’ voting record, their party registration, and the method by which they voted. This kind of effort is not just expensive (the Election Project, a voting information source run by a political science professor at the University of Florida, says the cost is roughly $130,000) but shrouded in mystery: third-party companies can set the terms they want, including confidentiality agreements that keep the information private.

In a response to the criticism of his paper, Richman admitted his numbers might be off. The estimate of 2.8 million non-citizen voters “is itself almost surely too high,” he wrote. “There is a 97.5% chance that the true value is lower.”

Despite this admission, however, Richman continued to promote the claims.

In March of 2018, he was in a courtroom testifying that non-citizens are voting en masse.

Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, was defending a law that required voters to prove their citizenship before registering to vote. Such voter ID laws are seen by many as a way to suppress legitimate votes, because many eligible voters—in this case, up to 35,000 Kansans—lack the required documents. To underscore the argument and prove that there was a genuine threat of non-citizen voting, Kobach’s team hired Richman as an expert witness.

Paid a total of $40,663.35 for his contribution, Richman used various sources to predict the number of non-citizens registered to vote in the state. One estimate, based on data from a Kansas county that was later proved to be inaccurate, put the number at 433. Another, extrapolated from CCES data, said it was 33,104. At the time, there were an estimated 115,000 adult residents in Kansas who were not American citizens—including green card holders and people on visas. By Richman’s calculations, that would mean nearly 30% of them were illegally registered to vote. Overall, his estimates ran from roughly 11,000 to 62,000. “We have a 95% confidence that the true value falls somewhere in that range,” he testified.

The judge ended up ruling that voter ID laws were unconstitutional. “All four of [Richman’s] estimates, taken individually or as a whole, are flawed,” she wrote in her opinion.

* I asked Richman earlier this summer if we should trust the sort of wide-ranging numbers he gave in his study, or in his testimony in Kansas. No, he answered, not necessarily. “One challenge is that people want to know what the levels of non-citizen registration and voting are with a level of certainty that the data at hand doesn’t provide,” he wrote me in an email.

In fact, Richman told me, he “ultimately agreed” with the judge in the Kansas case despite the fact that she called his evidence flawed. “On the one hand, I think that non-citizen voting happens, and that public policy responses need to be cognizant of that,” he told me. “On the other hand, that doesn’t mean every public policy response makes an appropriate trade-off between the various kinds of risk.”

Behind the academic language, he’s saying essentially what every other expert on the subject has already said: fraud is possible, so how do we balance election security with accessibility? Unlike his peers, however, Richman reached that conclusion by first publishing a paper with alarmist findings, writing a newspaper article about it, and then testifying that non-citizen voting was rampant, maybe, despite later agreeing with the decision that concluded he was wrong.

Whatever Richman’s reasons for this, his work has helped buttress the avalanche of disinformation in this election cycle.

Throughout the 2020 election campaign, President Trump has continued to make repeated, unfounded claims that vote-by-mail is insecure, and that millions of votes are being illegally cast. And last year, when a ballot harvesting scandal hit the Republican Party in North Carolina and forced a special election that led to a Democratic win, one operative made an appearance on Fox News to accuse the left of encouraging an epidemic of voter fraud.

“The left is enthusiastic about embracing this technique in states like California,” he said. “Voter fraud’s been one of the left’s most reliable voter constituencies.”

The speaker? Matt Braynard.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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