Sep 12 2022

The Stolen Election is a Conspiracy Theory

Research into conspiracy beliefs reveals that there are basically two kinds of people who believe in conspiracies. One type is the dedicated conspiracy theorist. For them, the conspiracy is what they are interested in. They never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t like, and they believe pretty much all of them. It’s part of their cognitive makeup. Others, however, are opportunistic conspiracy theorists – they believe one or two conspiracies that align with their ideology or tribe. Rosie O-Donnell is a 9/11 truther probably because it aligns with her politics. (As and aside, I can’t help thinking of her “fire melt steel” quote every time I see someone burn their steel on Forged in Fire.)

We are now facing a new conspiracy that largely follows the opportunistic paradigm, the notion that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump due to massive coordinated voter fraud. Persistently, surveys show that about 70% of Republicans feel that Biden was not legitimately elected. This is still a minority of Americans, about 30% total, but it represents a substantial political movement. The reasons for the popularity of this conspiracy theory are complex and debated, including a general rise in conspiracy claims surrounding elections (on both sides), the closeness of the election, the fact of the “red mirage” that was later wiped away, and of course the fact that Trump himself has been vehemently promoting the “big lie”.

I would note, however, that belief in conspiracies itself is not increasing over time. A recent study shows that conspiracy belief is essentially flat over long periods of time. The stolen election is a blip, an anomaly caused by the factors I listed above. I also note that while doubt in election results has been increasing over the last two decades, the 2020 stolen election belief is of an entirely different order of magnitude. This is not just some whining on the fringe – this is now a core political movement.

But make not mistake – the stolen election claim is a classic conspiracy theory, and there is no credible evidence to support it. Claims are based largely on simply doubting official sources of information, and trusting far less reliable sources because they express the desired conclusions. Let’s review that evidence. First, we have to recognize that rigging an American election would be a Herculean feat, especially without getting caught. Millions of votes would need to be changed or fabricated in a coordinated effort, across multiple states. You might argue that you would only have to have flipped 81,139 votes for Trump to have won, but that is only in hindsight. But that assumes Trump would have won by only 1 vote in those four close states. If, as many believers state, he actually won by a large margin, then that would also mean the margin of fake votes was similarly large. Also, because no one could predict exactly how genuine voting was going to go, ensuring a victory with fake votes would require millions of such fake votes.

There is simply no plausible way to pull this off and escape a thorough review of the election process and outcome. The massive fraud would require an equally massive cover-up, and that is where you get into crazy conspiracy territory. Every state, for example, monitors election outcomes by doing hand counts of portions of the votes and comparing them to the electronic count. If there were any significant discrepancy, that would trigger a review. If the voting machines were changing votes, therefore, the total would conflict with the hand counts of physical ballots. So you would have to fake millions of false ballots, which is not feasible. Also, that would be detected by comparing votes to voter rolls. In every election there are some votes, for example, that are registered to people who are dead. This is mostly people who die after voting, but there are other anomalies as well. But these are tiny in magnitude – not able to flip a single county, let alone an entire state.

Under allegations of fraud, or simply because of a close count: “Recounts, backed by the Republican party and the Trump campaign, were conducted in counties in Wisconsin, Arizona and Texas and at a statewide level in Georgia.” They all confirmed the initial results reported by the electronic counting.

We also have a process to evaluate any charges of voting irregularity. The Trump campaign brought over 60 lawsuits alleging voter fraud in the 2020 election. Here is an opportunity to present any evidence of voter fraud in a courtroom, where there are rules of evidence. Many of the judges in these trials were appointed by Republicans, even Trump himself. Trump lost every one. In fact, most of the cases were figuratively laughed out of court, the evidence was so pathetically thin. Mostly they were rumors, internet conspiracy theories, a complete misunderstanding of normal voting procedure, or other innocent occurrences. They through anything they could find against the wall, even sending out solicitations for witnesses of anything unusual, but nothing stuck.

This is where conspiracy theories always have to deepen. Those who maintain that the election was stolen then have to believe (as several people have directly argued to me) that those judges were biased (even the Trump appointed ones) or that time was not given to properly present evidence. But this is just an assertion without evidence or even rationale. It is how you dismiss inconvenient evidence.

What about the Cyber Ninja review in Arizona? This is a Trump-friendly organization, without any experience auditing elections, that was brought in to do an independent recount of the votes in Maricopa county (which is Democrat heavy). They famously found that Biden won the county by an even higher margin that previously reported. But they were brought in to find evidence of fraud, so that is what they found, despite the bottom-line results of the vote count. They searched for anomalies and found them, mostly due to their own incompetence.

For example, they claimed that there was a discrepancy between the number of ballots mailed out and the number returned, with 77,000 more of the latter, saying that was proof of fraud. The CEO of Cyber Ninja, Doug Logan, claimed:

Logan based his false claim on two types of early voting reports issued by Maricopa County: EV32 files and EV33 files. He claimed that EV32 files are “supposed to give a record of when a mail-in ballot is sent” and EV33 files are “supposed to give a record of when the mail-in ballot is received.”

But this claim is demonstrably false. EV32 and EV33 files are preliminary data used for state-mandated “get out the vote” efforts. They are not the final numbers, which show no discrepancy. This was a rookie mistake.  But again, the point of the entire effort was to muddy the waters, to create confusion and doubt and feed alleged anomalies to the conspiracy believers, who are unlikely to do a deep examination of the details.

At the end of the day, there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in the 2020 election. Proponents had the opportunity to present their evidence in court, in over 60 cases, and they lost every one. Recounts did not find any significant discrepancy. And the claims of the conspiracy theorists range from the implausible to the bizarre. This is not a belief that derives from evidence, it is a belief in search of evidence. That, of course, is the hallmark of pseudoscience, working backwards from a desired belief.

Of course, it is easier to stoke the flames of conspiracy belief than to quench them. All that is needed is to create the vague sense that something is off, in people who are highly predisposed to believe it in the first place. Whereas debunking requires careful exploration of detailed evidence along multiple lines on inquiry, in order to build a bullet-proof case, and even to prove a negative, that something did not happen.

This is why we need to follow the predetermined process for resolving elections, and adhere to the results even if we don’t like them.

No responses yet