Jonathan Chait

The Asymmetry Of Electoral Conspiracy Theories

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Political journalists are committed, for the purpose of maintaining objectivity, to the practice of assuming Republicans and Democrats behave as mirror images of each other. The problem is that this assumption has grown less and less true, which leaves journalists less and less able to describe reality in an accurate way.

Take, for instance, Politico's story about attempts to change election law leading up to the 2012 elections. Here is the beginning of the piece:

The push to rig the 2012 presidential election is under way.

There’s nothing illegal about it: Across the country, state legislatures are embroiled in partisan battles over election-law changes that, by design or effect, could play a significant role in determining the outcome of the presidency.

So far this year, there’s been legislation aimed at overhauling the awarding of electoral votes, requiring that candidates present a birth certificate, not to mention a wide assortment of other voting rights and administration-related measures that could easily affect enough ballots to deliver a state to one candidate or another.

The story duly produces vast swaths of evidence of Republican legislators attempting to change electoral rules in ways that would benefit the GOP in 2012 -- restricting early voting, shortening poll hours, clamping down on students voting at their campus, and so on. For the sake of balance, the story must also cite Democratic attempts to rig the 2012 playing field. The sum total of the evidence of rigging on the Democratic side is the ongoing attempt to bypass the electoral college through the national Popular Vote initiative, which hopes to enlist 270 electoral votes worth of states to pledge to appoint their electors to support the winner of the popular vote in presidential elections:

Another presidential election reform, the National Popular Vote initiative, has also been viewed by some as a sour-grapes electioneering measure.

An interstate compact that seeks to end-run the electoral college by throwing the election to the winner of the most total votes, its backers insist it is nonpartisan. It’s true that some GOP legislators have backed it, but the eight jurisdictions that have adopted it seven states plus Washington D.C. form a checklist of America’s bluest states, none of which have voted Republican in a presidential election since 1988.

And the idea is rooted in the searing experience of 2000, when Democrat Al Gore lost the presidency despite winning the popular vote.

There are several problems here. First, abolishing he electoral college is hardly rooted in the 2000 election. Indeed, a Constitutional amendment to elect presidents by popular vote passed the House of Representatives in 1969 (by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote.) It was filibustered in the Senate.

Second, it's not an attempt to tilt the 2012 playing field. Nobody expects the initiative to be completed by 2012. And even opponents admit there's no reason to believe it would favor Democrats.

The story does concede that the measure has bipartisan support, but flicks this rather compelling fact aside by noting that only blue states have thus far adopted the amendment. It's true that many Republicans oppose it (because they see it as a retrospective delegitimization of the 2000 election.) But that hardly makes the effort partisan, let alone an effort to tilt the 2012 playing field. Indeed, the campaign shares none of the salient characteristics of the various GOP electioneering efforts described in the story.

In my 2007 book, I described the asymmetrical belief in electoral conspiracy theories. Bizarre, counterfactual beliefs about massive electoral fraud exist on both right and left. The importance difference is that left-wing electoral conspiracy theories almost almost completely marginal, rejected by even highly partisan outlets like Daily Kos, whereas the right-wing equivalent enjoys mainstream support. Here is politico's story attempting to straddle the gulf between this reality and its requirement of assuming perfect symmetry between the two parties:

Just as Democrats are haunted by 2000, many newly minted Republican state lawmakers and secretaries of state share the view, prevalent among tea party activists, that Democrats and Obama in particular owe their successes to stolen elections, whether via the community organizing group ACORN and its fraudulent voter registrations, or by mobilizing ineligible populations to vote, particularly criminals and illegal immigrants. ...

“I don’t know why everybody’s so puzzled by this,” said Florida state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, sponsor of a controversial election-reform law there. “Did they forget ACORN already? Did they forget that mess, the voter intimidation, the made-up data? A lot of it got caught, but what if it didn’t?”  ...

Baxley said the lax address requirement opened the door to abuse, like a city council election he heard about in which the “pro-family” candidate was favored to win until his opponent, “a homosexual activist candidate,” bused in homosexuals from other parts of the state who showed up at the polls and claimed residency at an address occupied by a local Dunkin Donuts.

We've already dealt with the fact that the National Popular Vote Initiative is neither partisan nor an attempt to tilt the 2012 playing field. At this point it's worth mentioning that the fact that the election produced a winner who lost the popular vote in indisputably true. By contrast, the prevalent theories on the right that ACORN stole the 2008 election is, shall we say, unproven. The story quotes a GOP legislator saying he "heard" about homosexual activists registering en masse at a local Dunkin Donuts.

Wait. Did it actually happen this way? Politico does not attempt to verify the rumor. I strongly suspect the whole story is an exaggeration at best, and a pure fantasy at worst. Instead it's simply paired with the democrats belief that Al Gore received more votes than George W. Bush in 2000.

The existence of these conspiracy theories on the right, and their use as justification in the GOP's attempts to make voting less convenient in ways that will disproportionately effect Democratic constituencies, is interesting. It's an important aspect of our political life. But it's a phenomenon that the journalistic commitment to even-handedness renders impossible to describe.

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