Shortly after his 2016 election win, then-President elect Donald Trump tweeted that, in addition to sweeping the Electoral College, he had beaten opponent Hillary Clinton in the popular vote — but only if the final tally discounted “millions of people who voted illegally.” It was a baseless claim he later repeated in January, following his inauguration.
Though no such evidence was ever found, many of the president’s supporters continued to chip away at the theory on social media and across right-wing news outlets. On Thursday, a Washington Post report revealed the extent of the damage Trump’s questionable “voter fraud” claims had caused.
According to a poll the outlet recently conducted, at least “half of Republicans say they would support postponing the 2020 presidential election until the country can fix [the voter fraud] problem.” Additionally, half of Republicans also believe that Trump did, in fact, win the popular vote over Clinton, despite official results proving otherwise.
The poll also found that “larger fractions” of those surveyed believed “millions” of undocumented immigrants had voted and that “voter fraud happens somewhat or very often” (approximately 68 percent of those surveyed and 73 percent, respectively).
Those results reflect an ongoing effort by some Trump loyalists — and the president himself — to discredit Clinton’s popular vote win.
In a July post for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Senior Legal Fellow Hans A. von Spakovsky, now a member of the White House Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, cited a report by the right-leaning Government Accountability Institute (GAI) that claimed around 8,500 votes in the 2016 election were “highly likely” duplicates. GAI was co-founded by current White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
“All of this is just the latest evidence that we have serious, substantive problems in our voter registration system across the country and that voter fraud is, without a doubt, real,” von Spakovsky claimed.
Most experts agree, however, that voter fraud at the polls is a myth.
“Impersonation of voters, dead people voting, that stuff is outrageously false,” Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the Kansas City Star. “Virtually every scholar who has studied voter impersonation fraud has concluded that it is vanishingly rare.”
That hasn’t stopped the president from pushing those myths himself, sometimes through official channels, which can then appear to give weight to his claims and convince his supporters of their merit. In May, for instance, Trump signed an executive order establishing the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, whose sole mission was to seek out voter fraud and the “millions” of illegal ballots that Trump claimed had been cast. This was after Trump’s own lawyers had already stated in anti-recount filings that “all available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.”
When individual states balked at the notion of having to hand over confidential voter information to commissioners, Trump went on the offensive. “One has to wonder what they’re worried about,” he said during a televised news conference in mid-July, during the commission’s first meeting. “There’s something, there always is.”
President Trump: "If any state does not want to share this information one has to wonder what they're worried about." pic.twitter.com/wZQYU7sscB
— CSPAN (@cspan) July 19, 2017
Trump has utilized more unorthodox methods to support his faulty voter fraud claims, as well. In January, seeking to bolster his earlier claims, he cited a relatively unknown app, VoteStand, which allows users to upload photos of suspected voter fraud. (The Independent pointed out that many of the user submissions were “impossible to verify and might not depict voter fraud at all.”)
Look forward to seeing final results of VoteStand. Gregg Phillips and crew say at least 3,000,000 votes were illegal. We must do better!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2017
“Look forward to seeing final results of VoteStand,” he wrote. “[App creator] Gregg Phillips and crew say at least 3,000,000 votes were illegal. We must do better!”
Whether the app itself was trustworthy or not, the president’s repeated claims later appeared to be reflected in the polls. A Politico/Morning Consult poll in February showed that 25 percent of registered voters surveyed believed that “millions of people” had voted illegally in the 2016 election.
The results of the latest Washington Post poll aren’t entirely unprecedented. In the months leading up to the 2016 election, Trump made several claims that the election itself was “rigged” to favor Clinton.
“The only way we can lose, in my opinion… is if cheating goes on,” Trump told the crowd at a campaign rally in August. “I really believe it.”
Apparently, his supporters believed it too: according to a Bloomberg/Selzer poll conducted that same month, 56 percent agreed that the election had been rigged in Clinton’s favor. A Public Policy Polling survey a few days later showed 69 percent of Trump supporters believed the only way Clinton could win would be if the election were rigged. That same poll also showed that 40 percent of those supporters believed ACORN (a housing advocacy organization that closed its doors in 2010, following Republican allegations of voter fraud) would “steal the election for Clinton.”
“That shows the long staying power of GOP conspiracy theories,” the researchers concluded.
Trump clearly benefits from any momentum the voter fraud myth provides. After all, the troubling poll results that so often follow his baseless statements are a boon to his overall image—and perhaps even his chances in the 2020 election. “Of course it’s political,” Republican consultant Carter Wrenn told the Washington Post in September. “Why else would you do it?”
This piece has been updated to include Hans A. von Spakovsky’s position on the White House Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.