As President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he will ban TikTok from operating in the US Trump’s 2019 financial disclosure reveals revenue at Mar-a-Lago, other major clubs Treasury to conduct policy review of tax-exempt status for universities after Trump tweets MORE charges that fraud will mar the November election, I thought of the old adage, “It’s not what you know that gets you in trouble, but what you think you know that just ain’t so.”
Trump isn’t alone. Many Americans think our elections are rigged. Liberals perceive massive voter disenfranchisement, with Republicans preventing millions of minorities from voting to assure Republican victories. Conservatives perceive massive vote fraud, with millions of noncitizens and other ineligibles voting to assure Democratic victories.
While both views could be right, each is mostly wrong. Yet the fear of refuting election paranoia reflects how name-calling has replaced debate. Anyone rebutting the conservatives’ myth will get labeled a liberal lackey. Even worse, question the disenfranchisement myth and you get called racist — for a professor, that label could deep-six a grant, or even a job.
As a tenured professor who never gets grants, I can rebut each. Further, as a longtime patriot and onetime elected official — on the Fayetteville, Ark., school board, until my defeat in March — I want my fellow Americans to believe in American elections.
So where do myths about rigged elections come from? In part, today’s paranoia reflects past realities. Like most democracies, America has a history of both bigotry and vote fraud.
Liberal fears reflect the historic realities that from the 1890s to the 1960s, mainly in the South, state and local election officials kept African Americans from voting through horrendous means, legal and illegal. As Charles Bullock and R. Keith Gaddie showed in “The Triumph of Voting Rights in the South,” the 1965 Voting Rights Act immediately increased median African American voter registration in the region from 39 percent to 59 percent. In Mississippi, black registration rose from 7 percent to 60 percent. According to the authors, in today’s South, black voter turnout often exceeds white turnout, a civil rights triumph that reporters largely ignore.
Similarly, though vote fraud now seems rare, conservative fears reflect the historical realities that for decades urban Democratic politicians had supporters, including dead people, vote multiple times in the same election. Bosses such as Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunkitt boasted about their electoral chicanery. Plunkitt’s successors allied with the Mafia to keep power, as captured in Mario Puzo’s fictional “The Godfather” and Steven Erie’s factual “Rainbow’s End.”
For both left and right, paranoia also reflects the sheer size of our elections. In November 2016, more than 136 million people voted in general elections run by 50 states and thousands of local officials, directing tens of thousands of (largely elderly) Election Day volunteers. In anything that big, even with the best intentions, mishaps happen. I’ve seen some. In the 1970s a friend voted multiple times in the same Maryland Democratic primary, just to prove she could. In 1988, Virginia election officials disenfranchised me because they lost my registration. Though highly annoyed, I took comfort that my missing vote didn’t change any election outcomes.
Sometimes clerical mistakes happen; humans run elections, so they’ll never be perfect. Sustained worry about the spread of COVID-19 will not help. Yet America’s elections still work remarkably well, and this losing candidate resents the writers and politicians who stoke paranoia to attract readers or votes. Trashing our elections may not be un-American, but it is inaccurate and unpatriotic.
Americans should believe in our electoral process, even when we don’t like the results.
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He served in the U.S. government in the Clinton administration, and co-edited “The Politically Correct University.”