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Exaggerating Voting Issues May Juice A Base — But It Also 'Undermines Our Democracy'

The debate over voting is a heated one, often tainted by misleading and exaggerated rhetoric.
Simone Golob
Getty Images
The debate over voting is a heated one, often tainted by misleading and exaggerated rhetoric.

The House on Friday approved a sweeping measure that would, among many others things, expand voters' access to the polls. But Senate Republican leaders say that chamber will not take up the bill, calling it a power grab. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Democrats of using " fact-free rhetoric" to push legislation that Republicans argue would encourage voter fraud.

The debate over voting is often tainted by misleading and exaggerated rhetoric. President Trump in particular continues to allege "rampant voter fraud," despite evidence to the contrary. Some election experts warn that the discourse undermines voter confidence and poses a serious threat to the election process.

When asked recently to comment on a case in North Carolina — where a political operative has been charged with tampering with enough absentee ballots to warrant a new congressional election — Trump brought up unrelated and more dubious allegations.

"Well, I condemn any election fraud, and when I look at what's happened in California with the votes, when I look at what happened — as you know there was just a case where they found a million fraudulent votes," he told reporters in the Oval Office. At that point, a reporter started to interrupt, to note that in fact no one has found a million fraudulent votes in California.

The president cut her off, continuing, "When I look at what's happened in Texas. When I look at that catastrophe that took place in Florida, where the Republican candidates kept getting less and less and less and less. Fortunately, Rick Scott and Ron [DeSantis] ended up winning their election. But it was disgraceful what happened there."

What happened in Florida was part of the regular voting process, with absentee and mail-in ballots counted in the days following the elections. The president also referred to unproven claims in Texas that tens of thousands of noncitizens voted illegally, a claim state officials have since walked back.

Republicans frequently talk about the threat of "voter fraud." And polls show that the message is having an impact. A September 2018 NPR/Marist poll found that a majority of voters thought that voter fraud was likely or very likely to occur in the midterm elections, including 72 percent of Republicans.

"It's really inappropriate for elected officials who know better, that voter fraud, election fraud is extremely rare," says Chris Thomas, who ran elections in the state of Michigan for 36 years. He says unsubstantiated claims of fraud only confuse voters and erode public confidence.

"By gnawing at that confidence, it's just one more kind of chink in the armor, if you will, that undermines our democracy," he says.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is also disturbed by the trend and has been talking with other secretaries of state about how they might encourage a more thoughtful debate over voting issues. Unfortunately, he says, politicians have found that the rhetoric works.

"If you want to get your base excited, if you want to get people to donate to your campaign, if you want to get people to show up at your rally, you push that hyperbole button. You do the fear mongering about widespread fraud or widespread suppression and people are going to respond to it, but again it's not true," he says.

LaRose, a Republican, also faults some on the left for their frequent use of words like "purge" and "voter suppression," which he says makes the problems seem more pervasive than they are.

"Reasonable people should be able to say we will not tolerate voter fraud, we will not tolerate voter suppression," without implying they are systemic and widespread, he says.

Even routine maintenance of voter rolls can be blasted as a "purge." Chris Thomas says Michigan election officials were often criticized when they canceled inactive registrations as required by federal law.

"The complexity of the rules now can often result in the appearance to those who aren't paying close attention, or those who want to raise an issue, that something untoward is going on, when really it's just the routine maintenance," he says.

Jennifer Mercieca, an expert on political rhetoric at Texas A&M University, thinks that the prevalence of social media in public discourse encourages the use of loaded terms like "fraud" and "purge."

"The way you get rewarded in that system is by expressing these really polemical, emotional things," says Mercieca.

She says it inhibits reasoned debate and can lead to actions to address problems that don't exist — like voting restrictions in response to fears of widespread fraud.

Mercieca says another danger is that those who want to further divisions in the U.S. can take advantage of the hyper-polarized debate. She points to Russian trolls trying to sow discord in recent American elections by echoing talking points about widespread voter fraud and suppression.

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.