Published November 29, 2018
Plenty of Republicans and Trump fans are crying foul at the number of congressional seats that have moved towards the Democrats since Election Day. Insinuations or outright accusations of orchestrated voter fraud fill my Twitter feed. I understand why people are upset—but there’s no hanky panky afoot. Our election system is broken, but it is not saturated with fraud.
Let’s take a look at the California results. Republicans led in five closely contested congressional districts as vote counting ended on the Wednesday morning after the election. Most Republicans looked at that and said, “We won!” The experienced observer, though, noted how few votes had been cast in each contest. Compared to similar seats in the rest of the country, it was clear that only about half of the votes had been counted. There was more than enough left to be counted to change the results, unless California had significantly lower voter turnout than anyplace else.
It also should have been clear that those votes would favor the Democrats. That was true for two reasons. First, we have years of experience that ballots arriving on or after Election Day typically favor Democrats in California. Second, the Election Night results would have indicated that California, arguably ground zero of #TheResistance, was more pro-Trump than similar seats in every other state. No one could be sure how many votes Democrats would gain in these seats, but it was painfully clear that they would gain.
Now that the votes are nearly fully counted, we have no evidence of anything amiss. The margins of victory for each Democrat are in line with the baseline presidential results from 2016. Despite fervent GOP hopes, moderate anti-Trump Republicans who voted for Clinton in 2016 clearly voted straight Democratic in 2018. Not one of the seats that moved after election day exhibits a result out of the ordinary given the underlying partisan trends at work.
Nor is the turnout unusual given the national trends. David Wasserman, a premiere political analyst for the Cook Political Report, compiles a spreadsheet on the House voting in each district after each cycle. This year he computes how the midterm votes compare to the number of votes cast in 2016. California’s statistics are again in line with what similar seats elsewhere in the country have shown. The only difference between these seats is that most states, with many fewer mail ballot votes to count, finished their task sooner.
The fact is that different types of people cast ballots in different manners and at different times. Since partisanship often follows these types of differences, like age and education, ballot types can often have clear partisan indications.
In Australia, for example, what they call “postal ballots” and “pre-polls” almost always favor the center-right Liberal Party while absentees and provisional votes favor the center-left Labor Party. But even here timing can matter. In the recent by-election in the upper income Liberal seat of Wentworth, early arriving postals favored the Liberal whereas later arriving postals favored the independent. No one alleged fraud—it was just how the ballots broke.
This doesn’t mean, however, that our elections system is A-OK. Democracy depends on the nearly uniform belief that the process is transparent and neutral. Once that fades, then losers inevitably feel the outcome was not just. And when that happens, commitment to democracy itself wavers.
What Makes U.S. Voting Different
Our system is unlike that of virtually any other developed country in four ways. First, it is radically decentralized. Second, it is headed by partisan and elected officeholders. Third, the rules differ widely from place to place even when the office is national in scope. Fourth, we vote on more offices and issues at one time than any other country in the world. Each difference makes our system prone to error in easily avoidable ways.
The radical decentralization means that the professionalism and quality of the election board differs wildly. It’s not always a question of “bigger is better”; it’s more that some jurisdictions rely on poorly trained volunteers while others have a cadre of trained professionals. This affects the quality of the process from determining who can vote in the first place (processing registrations, following rules at the polling place, etc.) to handling and counting the ballots themselves. These differences can matter at the margin, and when a race is particularly close forgetting to put a bag of ballots in the queue and finding them later can look like mischief when it is more likely incompetence.
The partisan leadership also taints our process. Republicans look at county elections officials who are openly Democrats, like Broward County’s Brenda Snipes, and wonder if everything is fair. Democrats think the same thing when Republicans like Florida’s Katherine Harris in 2000 and Georgia’s Brian Kemp this year head the bureau that runs the elections. Everything can be done completely fairly, but partisanship skews how we look at everything.
The differing rules means that national elections can be decided under rules that prevent some people from voting. If one state requires proof of identification for voting while another does not, the state that requires it might see a slightly smaller voter turnout—and that can swing very tight races. Same-day voter registration, on the other hand, encourages people to show up at the polls, vote, and then walk out with little to no chance to check their qualifications. This likely boosts turnout, and hence can swing a state in a close race if same-day registrants tend to favor one party. This year, same-day registration in Utah was a factor in Representative Mia Love’s narrow loss in the state’s 4th Congressional District.
The fourth factor means we, unlike almost any other country, use complex, computer-read ballots. This introduces a host of problems. Poor ballot design in Palm Beach County arguably cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election, while filling out ballots that can only be read by machines introduces a host of challenges. Suppose you fill out that oval the wrong way, or don’t punch that chad all the way out? Your vote might not be counted, and our system does not encourage hand recounts owing to the size and scope of our voting.
Can Anything Be Done to Fix This Mess?
Readers will notice that I have not mentioned voter fraud or ballots cast by illegal aliens. That’s because, anecdotes aside, there’s little evidence of systemic fraud and not much evidence of organized or massive voting by ineligible immigrants. In a very close race, small fraud schemes or ballots cast by immigrants could change a result, but that’s more a sign of how porous and unprofessional our system is than proof that one side regularly cheats.
It’s pretty easy in theory to fix our elections system. Make uniform voting rules for national elections, with separate ballots for federal offices. Create a nonpartisan agency along the lines of the Australian Electoral Commission or Elections Canada to run the federal process, with similar agencies at the state level to run everything else. Give everyone who registers a unique voting card with a photo that they must present or refer to cast any type of ballot. Require Social Security numbers for registrations, and link voting systems to federal databases to ensure the numbers given are valid. Link local computer systems so that identities can be checked quickly for people who forget their card. Automatically enroll every citizen on their 18th birthday and update their addresses automatically based on postal files and other easily available commercial information.
These changes would eliminate most of the issues that plague our elections and would address the key concerns each party’s backers have—alleged fraud and suppression. No system is perfect, and surely unintended consequences would have to be dealt with. But it is better to address the major issues now, before suspicions of wrongdoing explode into a national crisis. Once faith in elections is gone, the elections themselves soon will be gone, too.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).