A top Texas official is walking back inflammatory accusations of massive voter fraud in the state. But as the claims unravel in the face of tough scrutiny, the damage they caused may be impossible to undo. That may be exactly the point.
Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton, both Republicans, told county election officials last week that they suspected there were 95,000 noncitizens on their voting rolls, 58,000 of whom appeared to have voted in one or more elections since 1996. But that claim, which was amplified by President Donald Trump, is quickly falling apart.
On Tuesday, Whitley’s office conceded that at least 20,000 of the registered voters flagged as potential noncitizens actually had had their citizenship verified. And there may be more. Paxton, who blasted out a news release with Whitley’s findings suggesting there was fraud, has not said anything since the numbers have come under scrutiny.
County election officials are investigating the names further and suspect there may be more eligible voters, including naturalized citizens, on the list.
But even as it becomes clear that Paxton and Whitley exaggerated the extent of voter fraud, it may not matter.
To many, the debacle in Texas is a just the latest chapter in a story that has played out over and over again in several states across the country in recent years. An official or activist group will make a salacious claim of illegal voting using unverified information and grab headlines before the claim is investigated and debunked in the ensuing months. Almost always, the claim turns out to be either wildly exaggerated or untrue, but it doesn’t really matter ― people remember only the original, scintillating accusation. While several studies have shown voter fraud is not a widespread problem, politicians use the simmering uncertainty about election integrity to justify new voting restrictions.
In Texas, the investigation of suspected noncitizens comes after a surge in Latino voter turnout in November and a pending bill in the Texas Legislature to require proof of citizenship when someone registers to vote.
Lorraine Minnite, a Rutgers professor who has studied many allegations of voter fraud, said what’s happening in Texas was part of a “very familiar pattern” that she’s observed over two decades.
“It almost doesn’t matter that they’re not correct, because they just keep saying it,” said Minnite, the author of The Myth of Voter Fraud. “The political strategy is almost to deliberately produce bad information, and then you go out with it and it’s hard to debunk right away.” By the time that happens, the misinformation is etched into voters’ psyches.
Debunking a claim of voter fraud is a complicated process that may involve going through volumes of voter registration files, assessing methodology, reviewing voter registration forms and contacting voters. It can take months. In Texas, many local election officials say they are going to proceed very slowly and cautiously with checking the list Whitley’s office provided.
The complexity of verifying a voter fraud claim, combined with how long it takes, adds to the likelihood that people will stop paying attention.
“There’s this lag between the time when the allegations are made and when the actual investigations are completed. It’s in that lag period that the perceptions solidify to ... ‘Yes, this a problem, and we need to do something about it,’” said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who has analyzed many allegations of election fraud. “By the time we actually get to the follow-up story, if there is one... by then it’s too late. People don’t connect the stories. They just believe whatever the initial story was.”
Trump has falsely claimed that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally in 2016, in which the popular vote went to his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, but he has offered no evidence to support that claim. Despite an avalanche of stories showing that’s not true, a HuffPost poll last year showed 28 percent of Americans, and nearly half of Republicans, believe millions voted illegally in 2016. Thirty-five percent said they were unsure. Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina have pushed voting restrictions, citing the need to improve election integrity.
Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard, said it was easy for people to latch on to voter fraud claims.
“Mainstream media coverage of false claims ends up validating and amplifying, even if you say this is false.... You make it familiar and people think familiar things are true,” he said in an interview. “The brain likes rumors. Broadly speaking, the crazier the rumor, the stickier it is for the brain. And correcting rumors doesn’t work very well.”
When figures of authority, such as Trump, amplify false claims, they become even harder to debunk, Minnite added.
McDonald said news organizations faced a kind of Catch-22 in covering allegations of voter fraud. Writing about them, even if an article included evidence to the contrary, only amplified unsubstantiated allegations. On the other hand, he said, ignoring the claims entirely allowed them to go into the public sphere unchallenged.
McDonald said it was encouraging that news outlets like The Texas Tribune covered the latest allegations of fraud with skepticism from the outset. There hasn’t always been that kind of suspicion from news coverage in the past, and McDonald said the immediate skepticism helps start an important public dialogue about the veracity of the initial claim.
On Tuesday, as Texas officials were contacting county election administrators to correct the list of suspected noncitizens, a woman across the country stood and spoke in favor of a proposed voter ID bill in the Wyoming Legislature. She pointed to the allegations of fraud in Texas ― which already requires voters to present ID at the polls ― to explain why her state needed voter ID. The bill advanced.
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